Forty-five years ago today, some 100 employees in offices around the country opened the doors of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for the first time. Created by the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EEOC was founded to enforce Title VII of that act which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Today, it is hard to envision some of the ingrained employment patterns of 45 years ago. Prior to Title VII, many employers openly segregated job classifications by race, color and ethnicity. Classified ads in newspapers overtly listed jobs as open only to men or women. It was not uncommon for pregnant women to be fired or forced to take unpaid leaves, and for employees to face an untenable choice between exercising their religion freely and remaining in their jobs.
Women’s participation in the labor market in 1966 stood at just over 30%, compared with 50% today. State “protective legislation” often limited the hours and times when women could work, and employers made employment decisions based upon stereotypes about women’s physical abilities or assumptions about their responsibilities at home. For example, women with young children were explicitly barred from some workplaces until the practice was struck down by the Supreme Court. Airlines often fired female flight attendants as soon as they got married, until a number of court challenges barred that practice. And jobs in the construction industry, public safety, and other fields were simply deemed off limits to women applicants.
In the long-haul trucking industry, company practices and seniority provisions prevented African American and Hispanic truck drivers from ever advancing to the higher-paying “over-the-road” interstate driving positions. They were confined to driving local routes, which paid far less. The EEOC challenged these policies and the nation’s highest court recognized that such arbitrary barriers to employment and promotion were intolerable under Title VII.
The Commission successfully challenged these and many other discriminatory employment practices in its early years. Building upon this legacy, it continues today to address discriminatory barriers to entry, retention and advancement in the workplace. While it is appropriate to observe the EEOC’s 45th anniversary by recognizing important advances that have occurred in the workplace, we must also note that the agency’s work is unfinished.
In the years since the EEOC opened its doors, important new laws were passed prohibiting employment discrimination based on age, disability, and, most recently, genetic information, and the Commission has stepped up to enforce these laws as proactively and creatively as it has enforced Title VII from its first days of operation. While blatant forms of discrimination have receded, more sophisticated, but equally effective methods of restricting employment opportunities on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion and sex have emerged.
The Commission must constantly work to meet new and emerging challenges, and always be guided by its core mission: to ensure equality of employment opportunity to all. The EEOC is proud of its 45 year history of advancing the goal of equal employment opportunity but must continue working to fulfill the mission of ending employment discrimination across the United States.