by Doug Bonney       

March is women’s history month. So, it seems natural to devote this month’s Know Your Rights segment to a brief review of some of the highlights and low lights of women’s legal rights in America.

In 1776, Abigail Adams advised her husband John, who was attending the Second Continental Congress, to “remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” But, despite an active women’s suffrage movement during the last half of the 19th-century, little was done for the cause of women’s legal rights until the 20th century. The biggest victory for women’s legal rights, of course, was the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote. In fact, the federal government did little to guarantee women’s rights until 1963 when Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, which prohibited employers from paying women less than men doing the same work. That law received strong support from unions because it reduced the ability of employers to hire low-wage women to displace union wage workers, mostly men.

But the big debate in women’s rights was between advocates of special rights for women and equal rights. As America turned away from traditional agrarian lifestyles and toward industrial employment, state legislatures began passing labor protective legislation designed to restrict the number of hours women could work. One such law, from Oregon, prohibited women from working more than 10 hours per day. Curt Muller, the owner of a small laundry, challenged his Conviction for violating that law in a case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

Although the Supreme Court had just three years earlier struck down a New York law regulating                  the hours of bakery workers, the Court ruled that women needed special legal protections that men did not need. In upholding the law, Justice David Brewer, a Kansan, wrote that “woman’s physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence’

The Muller case illustrated the great divide in the debate over women’s legal rights in America. On one hand, traditionally liberal groups, many associated with Eleanor Roosevelt, argued in favor of special protections for women and against equal rights. This debate has continued throughout the 20th century with a mixture of results. For instance, in a victory for the advocates of special rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, introduced in the I 920s, finally died in the 1 980s for lack of ratification by two-thirds of the state legislatures. But, the advocates of equal rights won a profound victory when, without much debate in Congress, a prohibition on sex discrimination was added to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This turned out to be a radical change in the debate over special rights and equal rights for women. Once passed, Title VII banned employment discrimination against women. The full impact of this legislation was shown in 1991 when the Supreme Court decided UAW vs. Johnson Controls. which held that a company policy banning women from working in areas were they would be exposed to lead violated Title VII even though the policy was intended to protect women of childbearing years against bearing children with birth defects. The Supreme Court rejected the policy as a return to the paternalistic thinking that inspired the result in Muller vs. Oregon.

Today, despite the demise of the Equal Rights Amendment, women can assert an equal legal status with men in the workplace and in political rights.

This is Doug Bonney of the Bonney Law Office helping you to Know Your Rights