The Nurse-Family Partnership aids low-income, first-time parents by providing them with a visiting registered nurse who can continue to help the family until they reach self-sufficiency, thus curbing early developmental problems and decreasing the risk of abuse or domestic violence. Read more...
Nurse-Family Partnership aids low-income, first-time parents by providing them
with a visiting registered nurse who can continue to help the family until they
reach self-sufficiency, thus curbing early developmental problems and
decreasing the risk of abuse or domestic violence. Some have suggested
expanding and raising awareness about this program could be a common ground
Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work, written by Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, goes beyond cases that helped shape workplace anti-discrimination policies. Rather, it focuses on ten key women whose own lives changed the law.
In 1966, Ida Phillips, a single mother working as a waitress, sat down at her kitchen table and wrote a letter to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. She told him her story: Despite her qualifications, Phillips had been told by a Martin Marietta employee not to apply for an assembly-line position at one of the construction-material company’smanufacturing plant. The job would have paid more than double what she was making as a waitress. It included a pension plan and insurance, benefits unavailable in most female-dominated industries at the time (and which since have only marginally improved.) The reason Phillips was turned away? She was a woman with a preschool child.
That letter, Phillips’ subsequent lawsuit, and her Supreme Court win would help spark a civil rights revolution in the workplace—one with consequences that reverberate today.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. And it was Phillips’ case, and the nine others profiled in the book, that would ultimately shape that law into one that, decades later, is an important tool in advancing gender and sex equality. As Thomas explained to Rewire in an interview, Title VII it is not just a foundational piece of civil rights legislation important for its historical effect on workplace equality. In the face of anti-transgender bathroom bills and statewide “religious liberties” legislation sweeping the country, it is a crucial tool for pushing equality forward.
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Thomas’ book is organized along three key themes in employment discrimination law: pregnancy-related workplace policies, gender stereotypes in the workplace, and sexual harassment. Those themes act as an inroad toward thinking more broadly about how, in Thomas’ words, we achieve “substantive equality” in the workplace. They illustrate how early fights over promotions and workplace policies that kept women out of certain jobs due to concerns of harming their potential fertility foreshadowed the legal showdowns over contraception coverage in employee health-care plans in cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby andZubik v. Burwell.
“The subject matter areas that I saw [as a researcher and employment discrimination litigator] were, number one, women’s capacity for pregnancy, and then their subsequent roles as mothers, which, historically, has played a huge role in their second-class status legally,” Thomas told Rewire. “Women of color have always been seen as workers, irrespective of whether they had children, so that’s not an entirely universal stereotype. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that generally pregnancy and motherhood have proven to be enormous conflicts in terms of what equality looks like when you have these distinct differences” in how race and gender are perceived.
Take, for instance, the case of Peggy Young and the question whether an employer can refuse to make on-the-job accommodations for pregnant employees when it does so for nonpregnant employees. Young, another one of the women featured in Thomas’ book, was a United Parcel Service (UPS) “air driver” who became pregnant. When Young told her employer she was pregnant, UPS told her they couldn’t accommodate the light-lifting recommendation made by Young’s medical providers. Instead, UPS told Young, she would have to take unpaid medical leave for the remainder of her pregnancy.
In March 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against UPS, vacating the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had supported UPS’ policy. The decision produced a new test for assessing pregnancy discrimination claims and sent Young’s case back to the lower courts for another look. Not long after the Roberts Court’s decision, UPS and Young settled the lawsuit, bringing an end to Young’s case.
The decision was a qualified win for advocates. The Roberts Court had accepted Young’s argument that UPS had no legitimate business reason for failing to accommodate her particular request, but the decision went short of ruling businesses must accommodate any pregnancy request.
But Because of Sex doesn’t stop at unpacking overt discrimination like the kind detailed in Young’s 2015 case or Phillips’ one in 1966. The book also takes a look at what the law has described as more “benevolent” kinds of discrimination. These include employment policies designed to “protect” women from endangering possible future pregnancies, such as prohibiting women employees from working jobs where they may be exposed to hazardous chemicals.
“It really all boils down to two issues that we are talking about in all these things,” Thomas explained, when discussing workplace policies that, employers have argued, were put in place to protect their female employees from potentially endangering a pregnancy. “One is [employers] ignoring hazards that apply to men and making women into baby-making machines. And number two is [employers] treating health effects or health hazards on the job as reasons for diminishing women’s opportunities, instead of arming women with information and assuming that they will make the right choice for themselves.”
This disconnect is most apparent in the case of United Automobile Workersv. Johnson Controls, Inc., another case Thomas highlights in her book. In 1982, the car battery manufacturer Johnson Controls sent a memorandum to all its employees that said “[w]omen who are pregnant or who are capable of bearing children will not be placed into jobs involving lead exposure or which would expose them to lead through the exercise of job bidding, bumping, transfer or promotion rights.”
The policy amounted to a demotion for many female employees and a closed door for others.
Title VII actually permits employers, in a limited context, to have employment policies that discriminate on their face, such as policies that permit churches to only hire members of the same faith. Johnson Controls argued its policy of keeping women out of certain positions due to employer concerns of health risks to future pregnancies fit within Title VII’s narrow window for permitting explicit discrimination.
The Supreme Court would eventually rule in 1991 that Johnson Controls’ policy violated Title VII because it forced female employees to have to choose “between having a child and having a job,” thereby rejecting the argument made by Johnson Control’s that a woman’s fertility—or infertility—can in most situations be considered a bona fide occupational qualification.
As Thomas noted in her book, “It was no coincidence that fetal protection politics were most prevalent in well-paid, unionized industries from which women historically had been excluded. Indeed they had been excluded precisely because they had been deemed physically unsuited for the dirty, sometimes strenuous work.”
But “in female-dominated fields, though, fetal protection policies made no business sense; they effectively would gut the workforce. That reality apparently trumped any hypothetical harm to employees’ future pregnancies,” Thomas wrote.
In other words, these policies didn’t exist in female-dominated fields.
Johnson Controls may have helped grant women the agency to determine how and when they earned a paycheck with regard to policies targeting their potential fertility, but it hardly ended the debate around when and how employers attempt to diminish women’s opportunities related to their roles as potential mothers. This has played out in the hundreds of lawsuits over the contraception benefit, for example.
In other words, if Johnson Controls had settled the question of whether a woman’s fertility was an appropriate grounds for discrimination, we would not have Hobby Lobby.
Because of Sex draws another connection between the historical fight over Title VII and the contemporary one: How do employers adjust workplace policies around shifting gender norms, and when is it discriminatory if they don’t? The law asks, “What are women supposed to want to do?” said Thomas in her interview with Rewire. “What work are they able to do? What work do they want to do? [Given] assumptions and stereotypes that are about their abilities, their preferences, their interests and how [they are] conforming to [those] in terms of stereotypes about what femininity is—what [are] women … supposed to look and act like?”
Gender nonconforming behavior, and the manner in which employees experience discrimination as a result of that behavior, is a key component over the debate around transgender rights. But it would take a “shrill” woman and the birth of the notion of “workplace harassment” to get us and the law there first.
By every measure, Ann Hopkins should have been made a partner in the global accounting firm Price Waterhouse. She was smart. Ambitious. Worked hard and constantly outperformed her peers. But it was those very attributes that her male partners deemed “too aggressive” or as evidence that she needed “charm school,” and ultimately used to deny her a partnership that by every objective measure she had earned.
The Supreme Court would ultimately disagree. In 1989, it ruled Hopkins should have been made a partner and that the comments relating to her demeanor amounted to improper gender stereotyping, a violation of Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions.
If Hopkins was initially shut out of workplace advancement due to her defiance of feminine stereotypes, so too are women subjected to on-the-job harassment, as Thomas draws out in Because of Sex. “Sexual harassment didn’t even have a name in 1974, but was such a prevalent force driving women out of the work force, driving them into different jobs [and] subjugating them just generally in terms of the identity as sexual objects on the job,” Thomas further explained in her interview.
1974 was the year Mechelle Vinson first hired a lawyer to represent her in a case against her boss, who was chronically sexually abusing her on the job. But at the time, courts largely wrote off those kinds of complaints as a kind of chasing-around-the-office, and not sexual harassment, or in Vinson’s case, on-the-job rape. As described by Thomas in her book, “throughout the 1970s, many courts responded to complaints about abusive bosses with a collective shrug that conveyed, ‘You can’t blame a guy for trying.'”
“Sexual harassment was such a prevalent force driving women out of the workforce, driving them into different jobs, and subjugating them just generally in terms of the identity as sexual objects on the job,” Thomas told Rewire.
That “you can’t blame a guy for trying” attitude hasn’t completely gone away as far as the federal courts are concerned. After all, in 2013 the Roberts Court in Vance v. Ball Statemade it even harder for employees to bring workplace harassment suits, and employees still face losing jobs for “being too cute” or having their sexuality be a perceived threat to their employer’s ability to remain professional in the workplace.
Which is why, in the fight over transgender bathroom access in 2016, Title VII should be a powerful force in defeating these latest attempts to stymie social progress. The idea that “you can’t blame a guy for trying” has morphed into “how the hell can we police gender roles if we don’t know where you pee.” That’s thanks almost entirely to the manner in which the law has wrestled with gender stereotypes under Title VII, Thomas explained.
In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing workplace anti-discrimination laws, issued the landmark decision Macy v. Holder, which held that employment discrimination based on transgender status was a form of unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII. Then in 2015, it issued a ruling stating that denying employees access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity is also a violation of Title VII. Meanwhile several federal courts of appeals have ruled that Title VII protects against gender identity discrimination.
But the Roberts Court has yet to weigh in.
“I think sexual orientation in a way is the sort of a final frontier” in Title VII litigation, said Thomas. “The court seems really fixated on this idea of analogizing very precisely from Hopkins. In other words, if you look or act in a way that doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes then, OK, [the courts] can understand that’s sex discrimination,” said Thomas. “But if your identity is not conforming to stereotypes in that you, you know, are romantically attracted to someone of your sex, that is harder for [the courts] to get, even though it’s obviously the most obvious manifestation of stereotype.”
This is, in many ways, a fight that started in the workplace—one that eventually got the backing of the Obama administration before becoming a flashpoint of conservative election-cycle politics. Thomas’ book doesn’t close on a prediction of what the next big Title VII fight will be per se, but it is impossible to finish it and not see the narrative threads of the historical fight for workplace equality woven throughout the the contemporary one. Sex. Gender. How the law understands and navigates the two. All this is what makes Thomas’ Because of Sex the closest thing to an assigned reading I can make.
During a May interview with the Texas Observer‘s Alexa Garcia-Ditta, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards didn’t skip a beat when pointing to the likely effect of voting restrictions.
“One of the greatest challenges, absolutely, in the state of Texas is the enormous hurdles that people have to go through to vote, and the fact that in the last election, we were 50th in voter turnout of 50 states,” said Richards. “That’s appalling. When 28 percent of the voters go to the polls, the democratic process isn’t working, it’s completely broken. I believe we have to completely address voting rights in this country, and in Texas.”
Texas is one of 17 states to implement new voting restrictions, such as voter identification laws and reduced early voting, for the first time during the 2016 presidential election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute at New York University’s School of Law. Those states include Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
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“This is part of a broader movement to curtail voting rights, which began after the 2010 election, when state lawmakers nationwide started introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote,” explains the Brennan Center’s website. “Overall, 22 states have new restrictions in effect since the 2010 midterm election.”
The Republican-led charge to roll back voting rights has been fairly transparent in its goal of suppressing Democratic votes, specifically targeting voters of color and those living in poverty—a goal only made easier after the Supreme Court gutted parts of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that safeguarded against these strategies in a 2013 decision.
Efforts to enact voting restrictions have begun to gain steam, increasingly in many of the same places where abortion restrictions are also being passed. And reproductive rights and justice advocates are taking notice. NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2012 noted that efforts to chip away at voting rights effectively silence the ability of many to weigh in on decisions regarding their bodies.
“Americans defend the right to choose by lobbying their elected officials, taking action in their communities, and participating in the public debate, but no single deed is as central to the civic process as the simple act of casting a vote,” Nancy Keenan, then president of NARAL, said in a statement announcing the decision. “That is why recent efforts to restrict citizens’ access to the ballot box are so dangerous. These measures threaten to deny millions of Americans the right to vote, silencing their voices as the nation debates our most cherished freedoms, including the right of every woman to make personal decisions regarding the full range of reproductive choices.”
Ilyse Hogue, NARAL’s current president, reaffirmed this commitment after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision on the VRA, explaining in a statement that year that the organization believes “that participation in the political process is a constitutional right that empowers Americans to elect leaders who represent their interests in important areas such as reproductive rights.”
When thousands joined the Moral March in Raleigh, North Carolina in February 2014 to protest conservative policies such as the state’s restrictive voter suppression laws, Planned Parenthood was among the event’s 150 coalition partners. In a piece for the Huffington Post, Richards explained why it was imperative for her organization to get involved.
“For Planned Parenthood, the ideology behind these measures is all too familiar. They were put in place by politicians who would rather transport us through a time warp where only the privileged few have access to fundamental American rights,” wrote Richards. “Many of those states [passing voting restrictions] are the same ones passing restriction after restriction on women’s access to health care.”
“The history of our country shows that we are better off when everyone has a voice in our political process. We continue to stand with our partners in calling for laws that make it easier—not harder—to vote,” Richards continued.
As the aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections brought a wave of voting restrictions, a crush of anti-choice laws similarly swept the country. Since those elections, an unprecedented 288 state-level abortion restrictions have been enacted.
“To put that number in context, states adopted nearly as many abortion restrictions during the last five years (288 enacted 2011-2015) as during the entire previous 15 years (292 enacted 1995-2010),” Guttmacher researchers explained in a recent report outlining the state of reproductive rights in the country.
The pushes for voting and abortion restrictions use similar tactics, slowly eroding the rights of women, people of color, and those with low incomes. “It’s a ‘death by 1000 cuts’ strategy,” Heather Gerken, a professor at Yale Law School, told MSNBC of the two issues in 2014. “For both of these rights, you’re not allowed to ban it. So in each instance you’re just making it harder than it would be otherwise.”
Conservatives have been able to do this by leveraging misinformation about the two issues. Abortion and voting restrictions “both address manufactured problems,” Sondra Goldschein, director of advocacy and policy at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Rewire. “They have thinly veiled excuses for introducing them. Whether it’s unproven voter fraud or concerns about women, the legislation is clearly about taking away rights, particularly in marginalized communities.”
For example, many voting restrictions are implemented based on false claims about the prevalence of voting fraud. In Wisconsin, where as many as 300,000 registered votersstand to be disenfranchised by the state’s restrictive voter ID law, Republican Gov. Scott Walker justified suppressing the vote by citing instances of fraudulent voting. When challenged in court, the state was unable to come up with a single case of voter impersonation.
That is likely because in Wisconsin, like in the rest of the country, voter fraud is virtually nonexistent. Study after study has found little to no evidence to support the claim. An analysis conducted by the Washington Post‘s Justin Levitt in 2014 found just 31 instances of voter fraud in the more than one billion ballots cast between the years 2000 and 2014.
Many abortion restrictions are similarly based on the perpetuation of misinformation, which are often based on conservatives feigning concern for women’s health. Wisconsin provides yet another prime example of this with its 2013 targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) law, which required all doctors performing abortions in the state to obtain admitting privileges to hospitals within a 30-mile range, justified by claims of safeguarding women’s health. But when the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law unconstitutional in 2015, Judge Richard Posner, writing for the majority, noted that the medical necessity for such laws is “nonexistent” and the regulations were instead meant to impede abortion access.
“They may do this in the name of protecting the health of women who have abortions, yet as in this case the specific measures they support may do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion,” wrote Posner.
Though it’s often clear that legislation to restrict access to the polls and abortion share similar goals and tactics—employing misinformation, attempting to dissuade people from access by making doing so too expensive or burdensome, and so on—in some cases, states are borrowing from the exact same playbooks to make laws to get their way. In Texas, where there is already a strict voter ID law, the state passed another law in 2015 requiring abortion providers to ask for “valid government record of identification” from patients to prove they are 18 before providing care. The process of obtaining a valid form of ID is often difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, especially for those in marginalized communities.
Much like the case for voting restrictions, abortion restrictions help white men maintain the status quo of power across the country. Drawing connections between between voting restrictions and TRAP laws in Texas, then-Rewire reporter Andrea Grimes, who now works for the Texas Observer, noted on the RJ Court Watch podcast that both conservative restrictions help ensure those in power maintain their positions.
“We [in Texas] have some of the strictest TRAP (targeted restrictions on abortion providers) legislation in the country. At the same time we have what one federal judge straight up called racist and unconstitutional voter ID requirements that prevent people from being able to get out to the polls and cast their votes,” said Grimes. “And these two things together kind of ensure that power stays with the powerful. That’s what we’re seeing right now here.”
“[B]oth voting rights and abortion access involve fundamental rights,” added Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire‘s vice president of law and the courts. “In theory, fundamental rights are fundamental. They are things that we all hold but really what we’re talking about is access to power. So when we place restrictions on those rights, we make it harder to exercise them—which makes it harder to effectively engage our civic power.”
When framed as a desperate attempt by the GOP to maintain a hold on their power dynamics, it comes as no surprise that many of the very same states pushing through voting restrictions are also moving to restrict abortion access. During 2015 alone, 57 abortion restrictions were enacted across the country. Of the massive push to restrict abortion since 2010, ten states enacted more than ten restrictions: Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Indiana, Alabama, and North Carolina.
These lists have remarkable crossover with the states that have enacted new voting restrictions in that same period of time: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The end result for both kinds of restrictions is the same: a massive sweep of nationwide changes chipping away at the fundamental rights of Americans and disproportionately affecting women, communities of color, and those living in poverty.
Those pushing through these laws “are not just focusing on one state, but they are looking at creating change across the whole country, through each individual state-by-state attack on these fundamental freedoms,” explained Goldschein.
Goldschein went on to note that conservatives’ success in pushing these restrictions demonstrates the importance of voting, especially for down-ballot seats in the state legislature where many of these decisions are made. “State legislatures are ground zero in the fight for civil liberties, and they do not always attract as much attention as the debates in Congress or arguments in the Supreme Court, but in fact they are really the source of unprecedented assaults on our most fundamental rights,” she explained.
“This year … 80 percent of our state legislature seats are up for re-election, and we need voters to be paying attention to what is happening in those state legislatures and then to hold politicians accountable and vote as if their liberties depend on it—because they do—because this is where these fights are taking place.”