Historical Perspective

Since 1789, the Constitution of the United States and its first ten amendments have represented a set of principles presumed to be in some sense 'higher than the product of mere legislative majorities," transcending political power and expediency, and therefore assuring the general good of society and safeguarding the fundamental rights of the citizens of the country. Seventy years after the adoption of the Constitution, Amendment XV extended its protections by prohibiting denial of rights based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. However, it was not until 130 years after the Constitution and 50 years after the XV Amendment that women achieved the right to participate in defining the "good" society in a realistic, political way: the ratification in 1920 of the XIX Amendment explicitly prohibited denial of voting rights on the basis of gender.

The decades that followed ratification of the XIX Amendment were characterized by major economic and political turmoil, including a worldwide economic depression, World War II, and an often violent union movement in the United States. The right to vote would seem to have provided women with the political power necessary to improve their legal and economic status in society, but it was difficult to assess whether women's new political power was indeed being translated into substantial improvements in legal and economic status.

The history of the fate of proposed Constitutional Amendment XXVII, popularly known as the "Equal Rights Amendment" or "ERA," gives cause for continued concern. This amendment was first considered by Congress in 1923, soon after women's suffrage was granted. However, a form of the amendment was not submitted to the states for ratification until March 22, 1972. After a full ten years of bitter debate, in 1982 the amendment fell three votes short of the number of states necessary for ratification. The "unratifiable" Constitutional Amendment XXVII read simply that "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, an increasingly vocal civil rights movement brought national attention to the fact that the guarantees of the XV Amendment had not resulted in equal legal or economic opportunities for blacks and other minorities. The exclusion from the major civil rights movement of issues of concern to women generated a parallel feminist movement for political and economic power. Women were determined that this time they would not wait fifty years to secure similar advances in their own civil rights.

In 1960, responding to increased pressure from women's groups, President John F. Kennedy appointed Esther Peterson to head the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor, and in 1961, created the President's Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by the prominent advocate of women's rights, Eleanor Roosevelt. Labor unions, national women's organizations and government agencies were all represented on the Commission. The charge given to the national Commission was to investigate the level of participation of women in key political and economic areas, and to make recommendations for improvement, where necessary. Individual states were encouraged to establish their own commissions on the status of women. Notably, Michigan became the first state to do so, when, in 1962, Governor John B. Swainson created the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women by executive order; in 1968, the Michigan Legislature, under the guidance and leadership of Senator Lorra! ine N. Beebe, enacted Public Act No. 1, which created the Michigan Women's Commission by statute.

In 1962, the President's Commission completed its first report on the status of women in the United States. Women working outside the home were found to have a median pay less than 60% that of men, and to be concentrated in the lowest paying jobs having the lowest status. Women were clearly underrepresented in managerial positions and in positions of power in national and local governments and political parties. The President's Commission recommended increased access to education for women, aid to working mothers, child care services, equal employment opportunities, equality of rights under the law, and a wider role for women in government. The report further recommended continuing governmental action on behalf of women's rights.

As a result of this report, Congress provided additional protection for women in the workplace and in institutions of higher education. Possibly the most significant protective device was Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII, the equal opportunity section of the act, prohibited discrimination based upon race, color, religion, national origin, or sex by private employers, employment agencies, and unions. Although the public sector, including educational institutions, was exempted from Title VII protection, a later series of federal laws and regulations barred sex discrimination in educational institutions and provided the basis for legal challenges to the policies of colleges and universities holding federal contracts. Most significant among these was Executive Order No. 11246, issued in September 1965, and amended in October 1968, by Order No. 11375. Together these orders prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, r! eligion, national origin, or sex in institutions receiving federal contracts over $10,000, and charged the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW, now the Department of Health and Human Services) with investigating compliance.