Breaking Barriers: The Typewriter That Rewrote History
In 1969, a legal battle unfolded in the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Attorney Sylvia Roberts stepped forward to argue the first sex discrimination case appealed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. Roberts was representing Lorena Weeks, a secretary at the Southern Bell Company, who had been denied higher-paying employment as a switchman due to a 30-pound weight limit imposed for the position. Nonetheless, in her current position as a clerk, Weeks was required to lift a 34-pound typewriter daily. After extensive efforts to appeal the decision, Weeks was given another opportunity to prove the injustice she had faced at her workplace. As a resolute statement of her experience, Weeks entered the courtroom, carrying her typewriter.
The court’s ruling in Weeks v. Southern Bell later declared that the weight limitation rule for women violated the law, making this case a monumental victory in the fight against gender-based employment discrimination.[i] However, Weeks’s case was not just a singular instance of gender-based employment discrimination. It was a groundbreaking moment in the broader fight against systemic gender inequality in the workplace. The court’s ruling in Weeks v. Southern Bell not only declared the weight limitation rule for women to be a violation of the law but also set a precedent that reverberated throughout the feminist movement. This landmark decision highlighted the urgent need to address gender-based discrimination in employment practices and became a rallying point for advocates of women’s rights. Lorena Weeks’s determination and her symbolic act of carrying her typewriter into the courtroom made this case a pivotal moment in the struggle for workplace equality for women.
Moreover, Weeks’s case shed light on the broader systemic gender inequality present in workplaces. It exemplified one of the numerous ways companies discriminated against women, such as imposing limits on lifting heavy objects or refusing employment due to pregnancy. Moreover, the case fell within the campaigns of one of the most prominent US organizations active during the Second Wave feminism in the 1960s, the National Organization for Women (NOW). In her seminal book The Feminine Mystique, activist and NOW founder Betty Friedan provides a vivid description of women’s daily lives in the late 1950s, shedding light on the challenges they faced. One area of particular concern was employment and the persistent gender inequality that permeated the workforce. In the words of Friedan, “… a third of American women now worked, but most were no longer young and very few were pursuing careers. They were married women who held part-time jobs, selling or secretarial, to put their husbands through school (…) Fewer and fewer women were entering professional work.”[ii]
Friedan’s observations resonated strongly with the data of the time, as highlighted in the report “For Women’s History Month, a look at gender gains – and gaps – in the U.S.” by A.W. Geiger and Kim Parker.[iii] The report reveals that although women in the US theoretically possessed the legal right to participate in the labor force, their participation stood at only around 35% during the 1960s. The gender employment disparity persisted despite gradual progress and increasing female presence in the workforce. In “Help-wanted” sections of newspapers, employers continued to post job offers that targeted a specific gender.[iv]
In this context, it is worth mentioning that attorney Sylvia Roberts was a NOW member. The Statement of Purpose by NOW explicitly claims its mission to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society, exercising all privileges and responsibilities of a truly equal partnership with men, which at the time included addressing employment disparities and advocating for workplace equality.[v] NOW saw its first opportunity for a battle against gender-based discrimination in the discriminatory advertisements that were published daily in national newspapers. In 1966, members of the organization began to actively petition the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for public hearings on the enforcement of advertising guidelines. As a result of their actions, the EEOC held these hearings the following year. In 1968, NOW took yet another stand against this form of gender discrimination. The association launched a boycott of Colgate-Palmolive products and organized a five-day demonstration in front of the company’s New York City headquarters.[vi] Their protest aimed to challenge company rules that restricted women from accessing higher-paying jobs due to a prohibition on lifting objects heavier than thirty-five pounds.
The effect of NOW’s advocacy started to become apparent in December 1967, when several prominent New York City newspapers, including the New York Times, made the decision to desegregate its help-wanted ads. NOW’s campaign eventually succeeded in June 1973 when, after over five years of efforts and more than three years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to prohibit sex-segregated employment advertisements.[vii]
Lorena Weeks’s typewriter served as a testament to the unjust obstacles she and countless other women faced daily. It was a silent but resolute statement, a symbol of the injustice experienced by women in the face of discrimination in the second half of the 20th century. This victory of NOW and the feminist movement paved the way for other successful campaigns launched in the years to come, such as the drafting of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, shaping the landscape of ongoing efforts to achieve greater gender equality and workplace fairness for all.
Image Credit: Hand-drawn vintage typewriter. Sketch Publishing House. Vector illustration. Courtesy of Shutterstock.
Ina Ilkova is an undergraduate student pursuing an interdisciplinary degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) and History at Utrecht University. Her academic passion lies in the field of women’s history, where she explores the intricate dynamics of grassroots women’s organizations during the 20th century. In her home country, she is a dedicated advocate in the fight against gender-based violence.
[i] Weeks v. Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Company, 277 F. Supp. 117 (S.D. Ga. 1967). (n.d.). Justia Law. https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/277/117/1868780/
[ii] Friedan, B. (2001, September 17). The Feminine Mystique. p. 14. W. W. Norton & Company.
[iii] A look at gender gains and gaps in the U.S. (2020, August 7). Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2018/03/15/for-womens-history-month-a-look-at-gender-gains-and-gaps-in-the-u-s/
[iv] Pedriana, N., & Abraham, A. (2006, November 30). Now You See Them, Now You Don’t: The Legal Field and Newspaper Desegregation of Sex-Segregated Help Wanted Ads 1965-75. Law & Social Inquiry, 31(4), 905–938. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-4469.2006.00039.x
[v] Statement of Purpose | National Organization for Women. (2017, March 31). National Organization for Women. https://now.org/about/history/statement-of-purpose/
[vi] Highlights | National Organization for Women. (2021, April 22). National Organization for Women. https://now.org/about/history/highlights/
[vii] Pedriana, N., & Abraham, A. (2006, November 30). Now You See Them, Now You Don’t: The Legal Field and Newspaper Desegregation of Sex-Segregated Help Wanted Ads 1965-75. Law & Social Inquiry, 31(4), 905–938. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-4469.2006.00039.x