How women got in on the Civil Rights Act

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tags: Civil Rights Act



Louis Menand has contributed to The New Yorker since 1991, and has been a staff writer since 2001.

HNN Editor:  In response to this article Ellen Carol DuBois, Distinguished Professor of History  and Gender Studies, UCLA, wrote a response, which she sent in to the New Yorker.  It appears at the bottom of this excerpt.

Most Americans who made it past the fourth grade have a pretty good idea who Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were. Not many Americans have even heard of Alice Paul, Howard W. Smith, and Martha Griffiths. But they played almost as big a role in the history of women’s rights as Marshall and King played in the history of civil rights for African-Americans. They gave women the handle to the door to economic opportunity, and nearly all the gains women have made in that sphere since the nineteen-sixties were made because of what they did.

What’s peculiar about their achievement—and this may have something to do with why fourth graders don’t learn about them, and why streets and schools all across the land are not named after them—is that it was accomplished in the face of the unequivocal opposition of the liberal establishment. Their story is a classic case of what Hegel called “the cunning of reason”: the way apparently random or anomalous events later turn out to be pieces in a larger historical design.

Among those who opposed the efforts of Paul, Smith, and Griffiths were the leaders of the civil-rights movement themselves. They thought that women’s-rights advocates were trying to piggyback on the movement for rights for African-Americans, and that the load would kill the piggy. They turned out to be wrong about the second thing, but they were completely right about the first.

The crusade for civil rights for African-Americans dates back well into the nineteenth century, but from the failure of Reconstruction until 1954 it was mostly a crusade in futility. Then, suddenly, it enjoyed two unexpected and spectacular successes: the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, striking down the doctrine of “separate but equal,” and, a year later, the Montgomery bus boycott, triggered by Parks’s arrest and ending, almost thirteen months later, with the court-ordered integration of city buses.

These triumphs eventually brought together most, if not quite all, of the disparate advocates for rights for African-Americans. The movement expanded to include an extraordinary range of people: veteran organizers like Roy Wilkins and Bayard Rustin; young activists like James Bevel, Diane Nash, and Bob Moses; religious groups like the National Council of Churches, headed by the millionaire industrialist J. Irwin Miller; and cautious but increasingly committed Justice Department officials like Burke Marshall, John Doar, Nicholas Katzenbach, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy....

Response by Ellen Carol DuBois 8/15/14

Louis Menand’s article does an admirable and balanced job of presenting the many complexities attending the attachment of “sex” to in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In providing the deep historical background he contends that “tension between advocates of women’s rights and advocates of rights for African Americans goes back to the days of the abolitionists and it continued after the Civil War. But there is an equally long and important side of this history in which racial and gender equality supporters were allies. 

Three years before the debate with Douglass over whether women were to be covered by the Fourteenth Amendment (they were not), Susan B. Anthony along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton drew up a petition to Congress on behalf of what became the Thirteenth Amendment, constitutionally abolishing slavery. Signed by four hundred thousand women and men, it was submitted to the Senate by Charles Sumner. 

A particular problem with Menand’s version is that it eliminates from the story entirely African American women, whose support for women’s rights was steady, in no way opposed to black rights, and at times critical. Just as new research has complicated the story of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, so too has it altered the history of the constitutional recognition in the 1970s of women’s equal rights. We now know that it was the great African American feminist Pauli Murray who devised the legal strategy that led the Supreme Court to reinterpret the Fourteenth Amendment to include sex-gender among the unconstitutional intrusions on the equal rights of American citizens.






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