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The American Evolution of Gender Discrimination Laws

During this nation’s early years, women had limited rights and privileges when compared to their male counterparts. For instance, women were not allowed to vote. Moreover, the requirement for a woman to surrender control of property to her husband upon marriage was not uncommon. Educational and career opportunities were limited, as the general belief was that a woman’s place was in the home raising children and tending to domestic affairs.

Efforts to obtain equal rights for women began as early as the 1800s, where coeducational (i.e. male and female) studies were offered at the university level for the first time in history. State laws allowing women to retain their personal property after marriage followed, as did the first women’s convention. In 1878 when Congress first considered passing a constitutional amendment that would afford women the right to vote; the 19th Amendment, which prohibits denial of voting rights based on sex, was not passed until 1920. Four decades later, the momentum for legislation expanding women’s rights and prohibiting gender discrimination began to take flight.

The History of Gender Discrimination Laws

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was established in the 1960s, and helped enact legislation intended on pursuing equality among all. Below is a summary of gender discrimination laws passed since this time.

The 1960s

The birth of the EEOC, the federal agency tasked with enforcing the numerous anti-employment discrimination laws that would be passed by the federal government over the decades, is realized. In addition to the EEOC, Congress passes the Equal Pay Act of 1963, prohibiting employers from discriminating against employees on the ground of sex in regard to compensation; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning discrimination in employment on the basis of sex (among other grounds); and the Equal Pay Act and Title VII, which gave both men and women protection against sex discrimination.

Some landmark cases and orders include:

  • Weeks v. Southern Bell: changes restrictive labor laws, as well as company regulations on both the working conditions and hours and conditions of female laborers; the result is opportunities for women in previously male-only jobs;
  • Executive Order 11246 is signed, prohibiting sex discrimination by government contractors; the order also requires affirmative action plans for women; and
  • Bowe v. Colgate-Palmolive Company: an Illinois appeals court finds that women who meet the physical requirements of a position may work in that job even if it had been designated specifically for men.

The 1970s

The 1970s experienced a flurry of legislation and court case decisions regarding women.

In the legislature,  Title IX (Public Law 92-318) of the Education Amendments is passed, prohibiting sex-based discrimination in all aspects of education programs that receive federal support. Congress outlawed housing discrimination on the basis of sex and credit discrimination against women. Additionally, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act is passed, banning employment discrimination against pregnant women. Finally, the Women’s Educational Equity Act funds the development of  gender-neutral teaching materials and model programs that encourage full educational opportunities for girls/women.

Some landmark cases include:

  • Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corporation: the U.S. Supreme Court finds the practice of private employers refusing to hire women with preschool aged children to be against the law;
  • Reed v. Reed: Idaho’s state law establishing an automatic preference for men as administrators of wills is found to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court;
  • Pittsburgh Press v. Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations: sex-segregated “help wanted” advertising is found to violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended;
  • Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton: the U.S. Supreme Court declares abortion legal in the U.S.;
  • Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur: finds forcing a pregnant woman to take maternity leave under the assumption she is incapable of working in her physical condition illegal;
  • Taylor v. Louisiana: revokes a state’s right to exclude women from juries; and
  • General Elec. Co v. Gilbert: women’s right to unemployment benefits during the last three months of pregnancy is upheld.

The 1980s

While legislation remained quiet during the 1980s, except for Mississippi belatedly ratifying the 19th Amendment, the courts were consistently addressing gender issues. For instance:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court holds that excluding women from the draft is constitutional;
  • Kirchberg v. Feenstra: overturns state laws previously declaring a husband “head and master” with unilateral control of jointly owned property;
  • Roberts v. U.S. Jaycees: sex discrimination in membership policies of organizations, is forbidden by the Supreme Court, and opens many previously all-male organizations to women;
  • Hishon v. King & Spalding: law firms are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sex in promoting lawyers to partnership positions;
  • Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson: the U.S. Supreme Court holds that sex discrimination can establish a hostile or abusive work environment; and
  • Johnson v. Santa Clara County: the U.S. Supreme court finds it permissible to take sex and race into account in employment decisions.

The 1990s

Early in the decade, Congress adopts the Gender Equity in Education Act. The purpose of the law was not only to train teachers in gender equality, but also to promote math and science learning by girls, counsel pregnant teens, and prevent sexual harassment. Additionally, the Violence Against Women Act is passed with the aim of funding services for victims of rape and domestic violence. The Act also creates a national 24-hour hotline for battered women, allows women to seek civil rights remedies for gender-related crimes, and provides sensitivity training to police and court officials. The Family and Medical Leave Act also goes into effect in the early 90s.

Relevant cases include:

  • Harris v. Forklift Systems: the U.S. Supreme Court holds that a victim does not need to show that she suffered physical or serious psychological injury as a result of sexual harassment;
  • United States v. Virginia: finds the male-only admissions policy of Virginia Military Institute, which is state-supported, violates the Fourteenth Amendment;
  • Expanding Title IX, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that college athletics programs must actively involve approximately equal numbers of men and women in order to qualify for federal support; and
  • Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America settles a sexual harassment EEOC lawsuit for $34 million that alleged hundreds of women were harassed.

The 2000s and beyond

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is reauthorized, which provides funds to aid victims, provides housing  to help keep from becoming homeless, and creates intervention programs to assist children who are witnesses of domestic violence and are at risk. The VAWA is reauthorized again, extending coverage to women of Native American and tribal lands who are attacked by non-tribal residents in addition to immigrants and lesbians. Additionally, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act allows victims of pay discrimination to file a complaint against their employer with the government within 180 days of their last paycheck. Under the Affordable Care Act, private health insurance companies are required to provide birth control without co-pays or deductibles.

Some notable legal decisions include:

  • Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education: the Supreme Court holds Title IX forbids punishing someone for complaining about sex-based discrimination; and
  • The 1994 Pentagon decision restricting women from combat roles is overturned.

New York Gender Discrimination Attorney

If you or someone you know believes he or she is the victim of employment discrimination because of gender – or has experienced any other type of discrimination in the workplace – contact ta seasoned and aggressive New York  gender discrimination attorney right away to learn about your rights under state and federal laws.  The skilled legal professionals at White, Ricotta & Marks, P.C. have been serving the greater New York area for years in all matters employment law-related matters. Click here or call (347)-464-8694 today for guidance on your case.

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