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  • Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years that Changed American Women’s Lives by Gillian Thomas
  • Cheryl Childers (bio)
Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years that Changed American Women’s Lives, by Gillian Thomas. St. Martin’s Press, 2016. $26.99.

Adding “sex” to list of other protected categories in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act started out as a joke by Representative Howard Smith, a southern Democrat segregationist, in an apparent attempt to derail the legislation. Martha Griffiths, a Democrat from Michigan, one of twelve women in the House of Representatives, reminded her fellow representatives that, without “sex,” Title VII would “afford more rights to black women than to white women” (2). President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark bill into law on July 2, 1964. However, it was only the beginning. As with many other laws, there was resistance from management in many companies and sometimes confusion about how to apply it to real workers.

Thomas takes us on a fifty-year journey of the plaintiffs and attorneys in the ten Supreme Court cases that defined, debated, and ultimately applied Title VII to the labor force, and the activist organizations that supported them. Those not familiar with the legal process will be fascinated by the detailed, and sometimes frustrating, bandying of words and their meanings. This is a behind-the-scenes look that few of us get to the world of district courts, federal appellate courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The book details the cases of ordinary women, from a variety of races, ethnicities, and social classes seeking fair treatment in the workplace. The women in this text represent a wide spectrum of the labor force: from working on an assembly line, managing accounts at a renowned accounting firm, delivery driving, operating a forklift, working as a bank teller, to wanting to be in law enforcement or corrections. The specifics of their experiences also vary widely; cases detail women not being allowed to work specific jobs because they were pregnant or had young children, not being promoted, being forced to have sex with a boss, being demoted because they asked questions about discrimination, and so forth. But the one experience they have in common is discrimination. [End Page 175]

The 1960s was a time of “Help Wanted—Male” and “Help Wanted—Female” advertising; of sporadic limits on the number of hours women could work; of rigid cultural perceptions about what women were physically and mentally capable of doing; and, maybe most important, the cultural belief that women (primarily white women) should be mothers first, workers second. Most of the women did not intend to be revolutionaries. They just wanted to work, receive fair wages, and be treated as any other worker. Given the sometimes three to six years between filing a lawsuit and the resolution by the Supreme Court, many did not individually benefit from court decisions in their cases. But they did realize the impact on sex equality for future generations of women. As Peggy Young, one of the women whose story is told, said at the conclusion of her case, speaking of her daughters, “I don’t want them to have to experience this kind of degradation of women. . . . It shouldn’t be like that” (228).

The book is impressive for three reasons. First, Thomas’s narrative is vivid and keeps the reader engaged. She explains in detail each step of the court cases. Thomas demystifies what is often a very abstract process by using easy-to-understand language and leading the reader through the complicated minutiae of the court system. She helps the reader understand the importance of each of the cases. Sometimes the decisions were “baby steps” in the move toward equality but, at other times, the decisions made more dramatic changes in the understanding of the law and/or its application. Regardless, all the decisions were important in changing how women experienced the labor force.

Second, Thomas relates first-person accounts of the women (and one male) defendants. We need to remember their names: Ida Phillips; Brenda Mieth and Dianne Rawlinson; Ruth Blanco; Mechelle Vinson; Lillian Garland; Ann Hopkins; Elsie...


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pp. 175-177
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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