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Another Piece of the Civil Rights Fight

Wikimedia Commons

On June 19th 1964, the Senate passed the Civil Rights Act, breaking the 83-day filibuster by Southern Democrats. While this act is recognized as a groundbreaking piece of civil rights legislation for African Americans, it also held the key to future civil rights advancements and protections for women.

Two days before the final vote, Representative Howard W. Smith, a powerful Democrat from Virginia, added sex as a protected class to Title VII, a section that prohibits discrimination by employers. Historians have been wondering about his motivations ever since.

Some argue that this last-minute addition was a “wrecking amendment,” added by Smith because he disagreed with the overall principles of the bill and hoped to push the act’s protections one step too far, causing it to fail.

But other historians look to Smith’s overall legislative record, and argue that while he was known to oppose civil rights for African Americans, he did support them for women. In 1964, Smith had been a 20-year supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and had worked, since 1945, with the National Women’s Party, and women’s rights advocate Alice Paul, to add sex as a protected civil rights category.

In a later interview, Smith indicated that he had expected Republicans, who had included equal rights for women in the party’s platform since 1940, to be persuaded to vote for the act.

Regardless of motivation, Smith’s addition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided women the opening wedge to seek equal protection through the courts and legislative bodies.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.