Fifty-five years ago, a congressman made a single addition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that changed everything.
Because of sex. Over the past 55 years, that single three-letter word has had momentous legal and social consequences for American life that the man who inserted it into the 1964 Civil Rights Act on a wintry Saturday morning could never have imagined. And now that the Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether that landmark law forbids employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the adaptive power and enduring meaning of that plain little word is about to be tested once more.
On February 8, 1964, as the House of Representatives debated passage of the bill, Howard Smith, an ardent segregationist from Virginia, rose to propose changes to four pages of Title VII, the section of the bill barring hiring and firing “because of” race, creed, religion, or color. “After the word religion, insert sex,” Smith drawled, urging his colleagues to rectify “this grave injustice … particularly in an election year.”