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Discrimination Against Women

July 1, 1970 — Special SubCommittee of the Committee on Education and Labor, Washington DC


Most men and not a few women, do not understand the campaign for equal rights for women. They may know that women are a majority of the population — 51 percent — and that they are supposed to control a majority of the Nation’s wealth.

How then could it be that women are discriminated against? At first glance, the idea may seem silly.

The Department of Labor found that in 1966, white men had an average income of $7,179. Black men had made $4,508 and white women $4,142. Black women, who are almost universally confined to menial services jobs, averaged only $2,934.

My main point in quoting these figures is to show you in dollars and cents, that white women are more discriminated against than black men in the labor market.

This has some very serious and costly consequences for our society, to which I will return in a moment.

In my own experience, I have suffered from two handicaps — being born black and being born female. I remember vividly one incident at Brooklyn College. One of my favorite professors, a blind political scientist named Louis Warsoff, was impressed by the way I handled myself in a debate.

He told me, “Shirley, you ought to go into politics.” I told him, “Proffy (that was a pet name we had for him) you forget two things. I am a woman and I am black.”

During my entire political life, my sex has been a far greater handicap than my skin pigmentation. From my earliest experience in ward political activity my chief obstacle was that I had to break through the role men assign women.

A young woman, in a newspaper story I read somewhere, defined that role beautifully. She was talking about her experiences in the civil rights movement: “We found that the men made the policy and the women made the peanut butter sandwiches.”

Every man in Congress is here because of the efforts of the women who form the backbone, the effective troops, of a political organization.

Without its thousands of women volunteers, the American party system would not work. It would break down in a confusion of unanswered letters, unmade phone calls, unkept appointments, unwritten speeches and unheld meetings.

Men are not aware of the incredible extent to which they rely on women or, to be more precise in my choice of words, the extent to which they exploit women — to handle the details while the men take the credit.

This brings me to one of the main points I want to make. The prejudice against women has gone unnoticed by most persons precisely because it is so pervasive and thorough-going that it seems to us to be normal.

For most of our history the very closely analogous prejudice against blacks was invisible to most white Americans because it was so normal to them.

It was a deeply ingrained, basic part of their personalities. Discovering that fact has been a great shock for many whites. Many others have not yet come that far, unfortunately. When they have, if they ever do, the race problem will vanish.

But if we ever succeed, as we must succeed if we are to survive, in rooting out the racism that is such a prominent part of our American heritage, we will still be very far from being a just society if we are not also ready to accord full human dignity to women.

After all, half of the blacks and every other minority group in this country are women. When we talk about women’s rights we are talking about the rights of the majority of the population.

Sex cuts across all geographical, religious, and racial lines. Every sector of the American population has a stake in eliminating anti-feminist discrimination.

To quote a brilliant black woman lawyer, Dr. Pauli Murray, “Discrimination because of one’s sex is just as degrading, dehumanizing, immoral, unjust, indefensible, infuriating and capable of producing societal turmoil as discrimination because of one’s race.”

In both cases, please note this, exclusion implies inferiority.

The stereotypes are closely parallel. The happy little homemaker, the dumb §. the bubble-brained secretary, are the same kind of distorted pictures, drawn by prejudice, as those of the contented old darky and black mammy and little pickaninnies down on the old plantation.

Blacks and women have both been taught from childhood, because our society is run by and for white males, that they are inherently inferior. To keep them in their place, the same, the very same, characteristics are imputed to women as to blacks — that they are more childish, emotional, and irresponsible than men, that they are of lower intelligence, that they need protection, that they are happiest in routine, undemanding jobs, that they lack ambition and executive ability.

The parallels are striking and almost frightening, aren’t they?

Stereotypes are no more credible where they are applied to women than they are when they are applied to blacks.

As far as the argument that the woman’s place is in the home goes I would like to borrow a campaign slogan from Mrs. Bella Abzug, Democratic nominee for the 19th Congressional District of the State of New York, and I believe this:

Woman’s place is in the House and the Senate and the AFL–CIO Executive Board and the Gridiron Club.
The important thing that must be understood is that women are first and foremost people.

A woman who aspires to be chairman of the board or a Member of the House does so for exactly the same reasons as any man. Basically she feels and knows that she possesses the talents, the attributes and the requisite skills for the job. That and that alone should be the cry in the business world, the professional world and the political world.

The most articulate and active members of the women’s rights movement have of course been professional women, and many of the specific amendments being dealt with today deal specifically with the problems of professional women.

These amendments proposed to section 702, title VII of the Civil Rights Act and section 13(a) of the Fair Labor Standards Act are necessary and important changes, but I would like to devote some of my time today to the problems of the working class and poor women of this country.

Our society’s attitudes toward women are closely bound up with one of its major problems, that of social welfare. The staggering costs of social services are straining the national budget and threatening to bankrupt most of our cities.

One of the commonest characteristics of welfare families is that they are headed by women. In many cases the problem began with a man who rejected or evaded the role we assign him, of protector and winner — but that is another question which I cannot deal with today.

The result, obviously, is that some women are forced to assume the breadwinner’s role in addition to that of mother and homemaker.

Three million eight hundred and sixty thousand white families are headed by women and 30 percent are poor, earning less than $3,000 a year, and one quarter of all black families are headed by women and 62 percent of them are poor.

In toto, women head 1,920,000 impoverished families. Let me recall the income figures I quoted earlier: white women averaged $4,142 in 1966 and black women $2,934. No one can support a family today on such pitiful incomes.  One cannot really be blamed for giving up even trying to do so.

But although the problem is most grave when it concerns women who are heads of households, it is not confined to them. Other women : who work do not do so because of the personal fulfillment but because they contribute substantially to the family’s support.

In one-third of the U.S. families where both parents work, the husband’s income is less than $5,000.

It is almost universally true that women are paid less than men for doing the same work. In college teaching as this subcommittee heard on Monday from Virginia R. Allan, women are paid median salaries $400 to $2,000 less than men of the same academic rank.

Women, like blacks, Puerto Ricans, and other groups that are the targets of discrimination, are clustered in the low level, dead end jobs and are rarely in the more responsible ones.

Although 38 percent of the women in the United States work, only 2 percent of them make more than $10,000 a year.

Women are also discriminated against in manpower training programs. First, because they are frequently channeled into training programs for low entry level jobs with no opportunities for advancement and second, because the quota for women enrollees is much smaller than for men.

In 1968 only 31.7 percent of the on-the-job training enrollees were women, the job opportunities in the business sector program had only 24 percent female enrollees and the new defunct Job Corps had 29 percent female enrollees.

If we are sincerely interested in solving our welfare problems and helping our poor and working class families, we must recognize the correlation between their problems and the battle to provide equal opportunities for women.

For these women, their income is not a supplement; it is essential for the survival and well-being of the family unit.

They must have more and better job training opportunities and equal pay and a fair opportunity for advancement.

Finally they must also have adequate day care facilities. Right now we have 5 million preschool children whose mothers have to work, but day care facilities are available to only 2 percent of our women.

Without adequate day care, we have seriously handicapped women and in some cases doomed them to failure in the job market.

Turning now to the legislation before this subcommittee section 805 of H.R. 16098, I would like to conclude my remarks with this observation: The amendments proposed are all just, necessary and long overdue.

Sex is not, any more than religion or race, a valid basis for discrimination. Women are individuals, just like men, or blacks or Polish Americans.

To consider them as a homogeneous group is manifestly unjust. It is prejudging each individual in the group, each woman, which as you know is the origin of the word prejudice.

These changes in the laws will do much to make it possible for a woman to strive, if she chooses, and to succeed or fail on her merits and her efforts, like every other human being.

My only reservation is that the proposed amendments may not go far enough toward putting teeth in the law.

Our experience with State and Federal civil rights agencies has generally been that, unless they have enforcement powers, they are ignored and impotent.

The disgraceful record of the Defense Department on contract compliance with the equal opportunity laws is, I believe, sufficient evidence of this.

It seems to me that the subcommittee should consider adding enforcement powers to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or if this is not practical in this bill as a legislative possibility, that the proposal be embodied in another bill and introduced by appropriate members through some other route. I thank you.



Source: Hearings Before the Special Subcommittee on Education for the Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives, 91st Congress, 2nd Sess., on Section 805 of H.R. 16098 to Prohibit Discrimination Against Women in Federally Assisted Programs and in Employment in Education; to Extend the equal Pay Act so as to Prohibit Discrimination in Administrative, Professional and Executive Employment; and to Extend the Jurisdiction of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to Include Sex (Washington DC: Committee on Education and Labor), 1970, pp. 617-621.