Today in Feminist History: Pittsburgh Press vs. Pittsburgh Commission

On June 21, 1973, in an opinion written by Justice Lewis Powell, the Supreme Court ruled against the Pittsburgh Press, which had claimed that a Pittsburgh ordinance banning sex-segregated job ads violated their freedom of the press. The court had that local authorities were permitted to prohibit commercial speech advertising illegal services and that descriminatory hiring was illegal under the ordinance.

An appendix of listings from the paper told the story of what this discrimination meant in practice: the first few jobs listed under “Jobs – Male Interest” on January 4, 1970 and their salaries read as follows:

ACAD. INSTRUCTORS. . . . . . . . .$13,000

ACCOUNTANTS. . . . . . . . . . . . 10,000

ADM. ASS’T, CPA . . . . . . . .. . 15,000

ADVERTISING MGR. . . . . . . . . . 10,000

BOOKKEEPER F-C. . . . . . . .. . . 9,000.

“Female Interest” went like this:

ACAD. INSTRUCTORS. . . . . . . . .$13,000

ACCOUNTANTS. . . . . . . . . . . . 6,000


BOOKKEEPER-INS . . . . . . . . . . 5,000

CLERK-TYPIST . . . . . . . . . . . 4,200

(Full list is found here. The male-female “interest” designation was a modification-without a difference the Pittsburgh Press had taken on to replace the traditional “male help wanted.”)

In theory, job discrimination on the basis of sex became illegal under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was added in under strange and fascinating circumstances – according to some accounts as a joke, to others as an attempt at a poison pill.  As Gillian Thomas’s book outlines, it took many years of case law to make this theoretical right at least something of a reality. The desegregation of the ads in the New York Times was an early victory for the National Organization for Women, which in those early years was populated with many women with experience in journalism and in similarly highly visible but low-paid and highly-discriminatory media industries.  The Pittsburgh case was also driven by NOW, with the Pittsburgh chapter having helped passed the ordinance challenged by the Press. 

As I’ve been immersed in reading feminist history, the role of local NOW chapters during this key years is interesting for a number of reasons.  With its focus on ending formal discrimination in the workplace and the public sphere and the passage of the ERA, NOW is often seen as the embodiment of “liberal,” reformist feminism, as opposed to the radical groups that emphasized utopian reworking of every gendered aspect of society, especially sexuality and the family.

There’s a lot to the distinction in terms of how activists at the time saw themselves and their goals. Today, however, when the history of cases like Pittsburgh isn’t much remembered, the label can obscure as much as it tells us, as associated as its become with elitism. NOW and the ERA movement were both mainstream and grassroots. Talk to women from that generation, and you’re as likely to hear stories about the friends involved with their local chapter or ERA campaign as with a consciousness-raising group.  And not insignificantly, NOW and its leadership were by many accounts more diverse than many highly visible radical movements. With certain politicians who shall remain nameless capturing the mantle of inside-the-system activists, the activist part of that equation gets lost. Whatever causes they espouse, most politicians (to say nothing of celebrities with book contracts) don’t belong in the same category as someone like Wilma Scott Heide, the head of the Pittsburgh chapter and later President of NOW, tireless ERA campaigner and the activist most responsible for the Pittsburgh Press victory.

Last year Jill Lepore had a fascinating piece in the New Yorker about why the nineteenth amendment,  unlike the fourteenth, became a kind of dead branch of law. I’d read a lot of versions of the argument that it would have been better had Griswold, Roe and other reproductive rights cases been made on the basis of equality rather than privacy, but for some reasons I hadn’t really considered the nineteenth amendment as specifically the untaken route.

Aside from the legal implications, this feels like an interesting analogue to what has happened with historical memory.  During the 1970s, many feminists wrote about the demobilization of the feminist movement after the achievement of suffrage as a cautionary tale. Tragically, more than any of the many victories, it was the loss of ERA that played the largest role.   The fact that so many victories from this period came through cases like Pittsburgh perhaps speaks to why the movement is more often remembered through a handful of celebrities and cultural tropes than through its actual significant accomplishments.

At the same time, however, it’s a mistake to see these victories as evidence for the efficacy of insider strategy at the expense of street action and agitation. Without Heide and countless activists like her, there would have been no court cases to win. Behind important cases like EEOC vs. Sears were the activists who organized, shared information, selected targets, and shifted public mores to such an extent that these victories were possible. Whatever opportunists try to sell us, even to be an inside agitator, you have have stepped far enough outside to know what needs agitating.

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