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Sex…and the Civil Rights Bill

Copy of HR 7152 showing amendments adding "sex" to the 1964 Civil Rights bill.

Copy of HR 7152 showing amendments adding "sex" to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, RG 233)

Forty-seven years ago this past Saturday, Martin Luther King, Jr., touched a nation with his inspiring words. Just six months later in February of 1964, one small but powerful word was added to the House version of the divisive Civil Rights Act.

Representative Howard Smith of Virginia sponsored an amendment to the bill—he added the word “sex” to the list of categories such as race and religion that the employers couldn’t consider when hiring someone. He thought the addition was so ludicrous it would kill the bill on the floor.

Smith’s track record on civil rights was clear: he protested Brown v. Board of Education, and in 1957 when another civil rights bill (this one on voting) had come before his rules committee, he had said, “The Southern people have never accepted the colored race as a race of people who had equal intelligence . . . as the white people of the South.”

But in 1964—whatever his intent for including the word, whether to torpedo a bill he opposed or even to try to gain some benefit from a bill he knew would pass—the word “sex” stuck around in this civil rights bill.

The bill cleared the House and Senate and later, when a conference committee suggested removing the word, committee members Representative Martha Griffiths and Senator Margaret Chase Smith insisted it remain.

With or without “sex,” the bill was hugely contested. One out of every three members in the House opposed it. But on July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, ending racial segregation—and unexpectedly guaranteeing gender equality thanks to Howard Smith.

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Comments

Comment from John Stephen Dwyer
Time August 31, 2010 at 7:48 am

This is the most interesting bit of info I’ve heard this week!

Comment from Christy Fowler
Time January 22, 2011 at 8:01 pm

This is a great document showing the beginning of gender equality, despite that really not being Howard’s attempt. I will use the image of it in my history day exibit project to show this helped lead to drafting of Title IX. Are there any copyright issues other than citing this website I should consider?

Mary Reply:

There are no copyright issues because these are public documents.