Combining the 1964 Civil Rights Legislation and the problem of starter marriages (which last only a year or two) in The Accidental Marriage, might seem like a stretch, but women moving into the workplace in the 1970′s strained marriages and poked and prodded society’s concept of the roles of men and women.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Much has changed in fifty years. My grandfather, a delightful man, raised five children without ever changing a diaper or washing a dish, because my grandmother would have been horrified if he had. In 1964 sexual harassment was normal, comic relief, innocent teasing. Women were only paid sixty percent of what men earned for the same work because that was fair market value. How much of societal change is the direct result of the Civil Rights Act? Probably a lot; and here’s something most people don’t know: the legislation almost didn’t pass.
A wily group of southern senators tried to put the kibosh on the whole thing by including equal rights for women–a repugnant notion. I wasn’t there but I can imagine them plotting and scheming in a back room blue with cigar smoke. I can almost hear them speak with their hair slicked back and dark rimmed spectacles resting on their noses.
In a green leather club chair with his skinny legs crossed at the knee, Smith, the Senior Senator from Virginia drawled, “It will pass. I swear it will. They have the votes.” He tapped a half inch of ash into a candy dish. “Lyndon will ram it down our throats.”
Eastland, a cotton planter from Mississippi had held his senate seat longer than them all. “He’s got dirt on everyone alive.”
“Then let’s add something to the legislation,” Smith said. “Something so repugnant the American people will reject it out of hand.” He unsheathed his fountain pen and scratched a word across a paper napkin. “Sex.”
Senator Elliot chuckled, “You’re going to toss women in the stew?”
“Sure,” Smith rolled a cigar between the tips of his fingers. “If they want to outlaw racial and religious discrimination, we’ll make them include women.”
“Women’s groups will be holding teas and writing their congressmen.” Eastland grinned. “Add gender and the civil rights act will go up in smoke. None of those gals wants to get up in the morning and go to work.”
“Gentlemen,” Smith dropped his empty glass on the table as though it were a period at the end of a sentence. “We have found our solution, and I for one, am going home.”
Standing at the far end of the room in half light, the young woman who’d been mixing drinks and passing sandwiches all evening bit down on her tongue. She needed this paycheck. When Senator Long reached his meaty fingers down the front of her shirt and tucked a five dollar bill in her bra, she forced herself to smile and wish him a good night.
In spite of the best efforts of that handful of good ole boys to derail the Civil Rights Act, it passed. But then what? How do you enforce an attitude, or police an off color remark, an unwanted touch, or an unjust promotion?
Shared parenting and domestic compromises, which seem so simple today, were a novelty in 1964. My son has three little children. He’s in charge of baths and bedtime; he’s an excellent cook, a pillar of his church, an MBA, and knows his way around a dirty diaper. In fifty years, much has changed. Thank Heaven.