We have written, on this blog, about the persistent gap in pay between men and women in America today. We have written about the injustice of men being paid more for doing the same work, about implicit gender-based bias, about unjustifiable double standards—it is by no means easy (or fair) to have to navigate the American workplace as a woman. And we’re working hard to level the playing field.
But, as we begin women’s history month, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge that women in America have the right to work in the occupation of their choosing. More than this, it is illegal to discriminate against an employee or applicant based on sex. This has not long been the case in this country.
Weeks successfully used Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to sue her employer for refusing, based solely on her gender, to promote her to a position for which she was the most qualified applicant. The company argued that the job was reserved for men because it required heavy lifting. At the time, many states had, so called, “protective legislation” prohibiting the employment of women in occupations that required lifting over thirty pounds. In ruling in Weeks’s favor, the 5th Circuit held, “Title VII rejects just this type of romantic paternalism as unduly Victorian and instead vests individual women with the power to decide whether or not to take on unromantic tasks. Men have always had the right to determine whether the incremental increase in remuneration for strenuous, dangerous, obnoxious, boring or unromantic tasks is worth the candle. The promise of Title VII is that women are now to be on equal footing.”
Today, around the world, countries still codify discrimination on the basis of sex: in Russia, the law prohibits women from operating trains, bulldozers, ships and trucks; working in sewage systems; producing leather; firefighting; repairing aircraft and a myriad of other jobs. In Madagascar, it’s illegal for women to work at night. And in Guinea, a married woman can only work if she has permission from her husband.
We know all too well that both at home and abroad, truly equal footing for women in the workplace remains illusive. But we should recognize the power of Title VII, and the contribution of women like Lorena Weeks, who relied on the law in insisting on providing their families the best life they could. In doing so, they opened the American workplace for women.