Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.

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Pickets from the National Organization for Women were out early and in force today in seven of fourteen cities that were part of a closed-circuit television conference sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Industry Council.

The purpose of the conference was to give employers around the country a chance to talk with representatives of the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance (O.F.C.C.) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about how those agencies will enforce guidelines barring discrimination. The reason for the protest is the refusal of the O.F.C.C. to include bias against women in its campaign to end discrimination by companies doing business with the government.

Today's protest outside the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. The picture was taken by Judith Meuli of Los Angeles N.O.W.

via Judith Meuli of Los Angeles N.O.W.

The O.F.C.C. representatives made it clear that they took racial discrimination quite seriously and intended to be very strict in regard to barring companies that were racially biased from having Federal contracts. Their attitude regarding sex discrimination, however, is an open invitation to discriminate and an insult to women. Secretary of Labor Hodgson has previously said that failure to include women in affirmative action plans will not make government contracts “unawardable.”

Today, things went from bad to worse when O.F.C.C. director John Wilks illustrated the group’s attitude toward sex discrimination. After the topic of affirmative action guidelines regarding sex came up he said: “Guidelines for sex? It could be a best-seller. We’re looking forward to it.” The overwhelmingly male audience thought the remark was hilarious, but N.O.W.’s Shirley Bernard did not. She said:

That’s what we’re protesting. They haven’t really said anything pertinent about women all morning … Effectively, what has happened is that our status as a minority group in the work force has not been reaffirmed. We’ve been excluded from the benefits of Order Four [which deals with affirmative action programs] especially where it covers recruitment. Directives concerning equal employment have been watered down, wording changed from ‘must’ to ‘should.’ There seems to be a lack of interest among government agencies to alleviate the discrimination problem for women.

As noted by one N.O.W. member, the fact that 109 of 110 Federal complaint officers are men might have something to do with the problem. “Perhaps the O.F.C.C. should investigate itself,” she suggested.

The protest got lots of media attention, and even those who put on the conference had to take note of it: “You can be sure those television cameras aren’t here because our program is big news,” said Donald E. Butler, who put together the Los Angeles conference. He then noted: “As the newsmen say, where there’s a picket line, there’s a story.”

The media coverage here in Los Angeles was mixed, as is generally the case. A KFI radio reporter was quite supportive and even asked for some N.O.W. literature for his wife. But KABC-TV focused mostly on the marchers’ legs and commented on their “muscular calves.” KNBC-TV presumed the pickets were “secretaries and stenographers.”

Passersby gave both positive and negative comments ranging from “I go along with you” and the hope that “N.O.W. would change things for all women” to “Women should go back to their stoves.”

As previously arranged by N.O.W. president Aileen Hernandez and Ted Allan of N.A.M., two members of N.O.W. were permitted to register and attend the conferences in each of the 14 cities. In San Francisco one of the two was Hernandez, and in Los Angeles, Toni Carabillo, president of Los Angeles N.O.W. and Danica Henninger of N.O.W.’s Employment Task Force went in to represent the feminist view.

Apparently those who were admitted were quite effective, because during the question and answer session after a coffee break, 6 of 13 questions were about sex discrimination. The answers indicated that though eliminating sex bias had not yet been given the same priority as banning racial discrimination, certain things are clearly illegal, such as discrimination based on sex in “Help Wanted” ads, treating a woman with children differently from a man with children, and pregnancy discrimination. It was also stated that when there was a conflict between a state’s “protective” (in reality “restrictive”) law regarding women’s employment and a Federal law requiring equal treatment, the Federal law has priority.

There’s still a long way to go to attain total workplace equality, but the attention given the protests, as well as some meaningful interactions between government officials, employers, and N.O.W. members today gives hope that the government’s drive to eliminate employment discrimination will soon give gender bias the equal priority it deserves.

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David Dismore

David became a lifelong admirer of the suffragists after briefly encountering them in a high school textbook in the early 1960s. Though missing out on that first part of the struggle for equality, he became active in "second wave" feminism through LA NOW in 1974 and has been a full-time feminist, TV news archivist, and women's history researcher at the Feminist Majority Foundation since its creation.