The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Civil Rights 101 - Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund - 2001


ALTHOUGH NOT A NUMERICAL MINORITY, women have often faced the same kinds of barriers as African Americans and other racial minorities in their quest for equal political, economic and social opportunities in the United States.

WOMEN have fought - in the courts and the legislatures, as well as in the streets and the forums of public opinion - for the right to vote, to hold property, to be elected to public office, to gain an education, to hold certain kinds of jobs, and to receive pay equal to men. In addition, women face unique kinds of discrimination based on gender, such as sexual harassment and job discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.

IN RECENT YEARS the principal civil rights issues for women - reproductive rights excepted - have centered primarily on employment and education. The fight for women's equal opportunity has been waged on a number of fronts: the successful enactment of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title IX in 1972 and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978; the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982; and the enactment of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993. And, as has been true for African Americans and other minorities, women have found that simply passing legislation without accompanying enforcement does little to dismantle the obstacles to equal opportunity.


ALTHOUGH SOME PROGRESS has been made in closing the gap between men's and women's earnings since the Equal Pay Act's passage in 1963, women on average still earn only 72 cents for every dollar earned by white men, according to 1999 data from the National Committee on Pay Equity. Women of color, who often face double discrimination based on both their sex as well as their race and/or national origin, fare even worse: in 1999, African-American women earned only 65 cents and Hispanic women only 52 cents for every dollar earned by their white male counterparts.

SOME OPPONENTS OF STRICT ENFORCEMENT of equal pay laws argue that many women join the work force just to supplement their husband's income or for their own ego gratification - a more sophisticated version of the "women's proper place" argument that is rarely made explicit any more. Yet in a 1997 study conducted by the AFL-CIO, 64% of working women surveyed reported that they provide half or more of their family's income.

TO ADDRESS THE CONTINUING PAY GAP, women's advocates have focused on legislative initiatives such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would close loopholes in and toughen penalties for violations of the Equal Pay Act (which prohibits pay discrimination between men and women performing the same job), as well as provide additional funding for enforcement efforts. Another key legislative priority is the Fair Pay Act, which would prohibit employers from engaging in sex- or race-based pay discrimination between employees performing work of equal value.

PAY DISCRIMINATION IS JUST ONE TYPE of barrier faced by women seeking equal employment opportunity. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits job discrimination -- such as discrimination in hiring, promotion, firing, and compensation -- on the basis of race, sex, religion, color, and national origin. Its protections against sex discrimination in employment have proven particularly effective in opening doors for women throughout the workplace.

TITLE VII'S EFFECTIVENESS was further bolstered with the enactment of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (doc) (which made clear that job discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is an unlawful form of sex discrimination) and the Civil Rights Act of 1991 (which, among other things, provided money damages to help compensate victims of sexual harassment and other illegal job discrimination).

WORKING WOMEN also won a key Supreme Court ruling under Title VII in 1991 in UAW v. Johnson Controls case, which made clear that Title VII prohibits companies from firing or excluding qualified women from jobs that may pose reproductive health hazards, even though the jobs may pose similar threats to men. And in 1998, in Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, the Court clarified its earlier rulings on sexual harassment, reaffirming that Title VII requires employers to ensure a workplace free from sexual and other forms of discriminatory harassment.

ENACTMENT OF THE FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE ACT (FMLA) in 1993 marked yet another major milestone on women's path to equal employment opportunity, providing job-guaranteed leave for both male and female workers who need time to care for a new child, or for their own or a family member's serious health condition. In light of ever-increasing evidence of the conflicts faced by workers seeking to meet both their job and family responsibilities, women's advocates such as the National Partnership for Women & Families now look to expand the FMLA to cover more workers and more family needs, and to explore approaches to provide income to workers who need to take time off from work for family reasons.


Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs or activities, provides the cornerstone of federal law ensuring equal educational opportunity. To name just one of its benefits, Title IX has greatly expanded athletic opportunities for women and girls. The National Women's Law Center reports that when Title IX was first enacted 1972, girls made up only 7.4% of all high school athletes; girls were 40% of all high school athletes by 2000. Similarly, in 1972, fewer than 32,000 women participated in intercollegiate athletics, receiving only 2% of all athletic dollars; by 2000, that number had quadrupled, with women comprising 40% of all college athletes. Title IX's success in this area is further demonstrated by American women's recent Olympic successes -- including gold medals in basketball, soccer, softball, gymnastics, and ice hockey.

YET TITLE IX has encountered a number of obstacles since its enactment. In a 1984 case called Grove City v. Bell, the Supreme Court interpreted Title IX very narrowly, constraining its protections to the limited program within an institution that actually received federal funding - e.g., a college's financial aid department - rather than covering the educational institution as a whole. Under this interpretation, athletic programs (considered to be among the most unequal of all college and university programs) were virtually immune from Title IX scrutiny because they rarely receive direct federal funding.

BUT, AFTER A HEATED POLITICAL DEBATE, Congress voted in 1988 to override President Reagan's veto of the Civil Rights Restoration Act (CRRA). The CRRA reversed the Court's decision in Grove City, reaffirming Congressional intent to prohibit sex discrimination throughout all of a federally funded education institution's programs.

TITLE IX'S WORK IS NOT YET DONE, however, as women athletes, despite their numbers, still struggle for equal access to opportunities and facilities. For example, the National Women's Law Center reports that women athletes, despite their increasing numbers, receive only 33% of all athletic department dollars.

ADVOCATES OF TITLE IX also point to the need to address sex segregation in technical, vocational, and career education programs in junior and community colleges, the issue of sex-based differentials in the SAT and other standardized tests that do not accurately predict academic performance, and the need for affordable and adequate child care for low-income mothers to enable them to pursue higher education.

RECENT BATTLES have also focused on the need to clarify Title IX's protections against sexual harassment in the schools. In pathbreaking 1998 and 1999 decisions (Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District and Davis v. Monroe County School District), the Supreme Court made clear that Title IX does require schools to take action to prevent and stop the harassment of students by teachers or other students. Those decisions, however, also severely limited the circumstances under which victims of such harassment may receive money damages for their injuries.

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