Equality on trial: Women and work in the age of Title VII

2011 2011

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Abstract (summary)

In 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act outlawed sex discrimination in employment. Title VII replaced the bedrock of working women's rights discourse, difference, with a new imperative, equality, but did not define sex discrimination or identify its remedies. Yet, just a few decades later, Title VII had transformed women's status in the American workplace. This dissertation analyzes struggles to define and implement the sex discrimination provision of Title VII from 1964 to the early 1990s. In those years, the meaning of sex equality was hotly contested. Aggrieved women mobilized around Title VII within their workplaces and before government agencies. For such women, equality was personal in an era when the personal was newly politicized. Legal and interest group advocates harnessed and organized women's complaints. Administrators streamlined government processes, categorized claims and mediated disputes. Courts weighed competing interests in light of the new legal imperative for sex equality.

A political history from both the bottom-up and top-down, this dissertation expands existing conceptions of political actors and processes; probes the inherent challenges of implementing progressive ideology; and demonstrates both the power and the shortcomings of the law as a tool of social change. Women's workplace activism outside of feminist and labor organizations demonstrates the breadth and ideological diversity of the second wave even as members of flagship feminist groups disputed the meaning of Title VII. Yet, the scope of sex equality law also was shaped by the government agencies and legal mechanisms that fielded and rendered women's claims legally legible. As a result, the same processes that yielded some of the second wave's most symbolic victories also narrowed the terms of sex equality. This study argues that contemporary definitions of workplace sex equality as facility of access to jobs and the downplaying of sex and gender at work represent the triumph of elite interests and administrative efficiency. This outcome silenced those who had argued that Title VII promised substantive and redistributive equality that could coexist with rather than ignore or penalize difference. As a result, systemic class and race inequalities among women were pushed outside the purview of the law just as the triumph of the service economy and growing disparities of wealth compounded those same inequalities.

This study contributes to scholarly literature on women, gender and sexuality; labor, political economy, race, and class; claims-making and social movements; and law, citizenship and statecraft in postwar American society. It draws upon a range of legal, organizational, and personal records. Key collections include the records of federal agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Labor; interest groups such as the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union; the records of labor unions such as the Service Employees International Union; attorneys' and activists' personal papers and oral history interviews; briefs, depositions, and other records of court proceedings; and more. Considered together, workers' correspondence and complaints, activist and government records, and documents produced by legal confrontations reveal how struggles over Title VII gave way to broad consensus by the 1990s.

Indexing (details)

American history;
Womens studies;
Gender studies
0337: American history
0398: Law
0453: Womens studies
0733: Gender studies
Identifier / keyword
Social sciences; Class action; Feminism; Gender equality; Labor; Lawsuit; Sex discrimination; Sex equality; Title VII; Women workers
Equality on trial: Women and work in the age of Title VII
Turk, Katherine Lee
Number of pages
Publication year
Degree date
School code
DAI-A 72/09, Dissertation Abstracts International
Place of publication
Ann Arbor
Country of publication
United States
Stanley, Amy Dru
Committee member
Sparrow, James; Stansell, Christine
The University of Chicago
University location
United States -- Illinois
Source type
Dissertations & Theses
Document type
Dissertation/thesis number
ProQuest document ID
Database copyright ProQuest LLC; ProQuest does not claim copyright in the individual underlying works.
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