The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, and sex. The last word was almost an afterthought, added at the last moment with laughter in Congress. No one had studied what that really meant, and what impact it would have on the American workforce. At the time, some state laws prohibited women from holding certain jobs, or working certain hours. Companies had their own regulations, like airlines that automatically fired stewardesses if they got married -or gained weight. It took years and much litigation to change things. One of those cases was initiated by Ida Phillips. The Martin Marietta Corporation had entry-level positions that paid $125 a week, more than twice what Phillips made as a waitress, and they had openings for new workers.
Phillips resolved to be one of them. Thirty-two years old and the mother of seven children ranging in age from three to sixteen, she was barely scraping by. Every day she counted up the tips that she’d made during her shift and decided what she could afford to buy for that night’s supper; the little bit she had left over got tucked away to cover the bills. She certainly couldn’t count on the wages her husband, Tom Phillips, got from working as a mechanic. Those he usually drank.
So Phillips, a vivacious, dimpled redhead, had driven the ten miles to the Martin Marietta facility on Kirkman Road to submit an application. When she got to the front of the line, the receptionist asked her if she had any preschool-age children. Hearing that Phillips had a three-year-old, the woman declined to let her apply. It didn’t matter that Phillips’s daughter was enrolled in day care or that she also had plenty of backup child care, including a sister who lived nearby and the stay-at-home mother who lived just next door. The company simply wouldn’t hire women with kids that young. “I felt like the world had caved in on me,” Phillips recalled. “I had my hopes up so much for it.” She needed those wages, and her kids needed those benefits.
The neighbor who recommended that she apply had preschool children, too, but that did not affect his employment because he was a man. So Phillips fought back, in a case that went all the to the Supreme Court. It wasn’t easy, as you’ll see in an excerpt from the book Because of Sex by Gillian Thomas at Longreads.