Georgetown Law
Georgetown Law Library

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States

This guide offers a history of various movements by citizens in the United States to gain political and social freedom and equality. It highlights resources available through the library and also offers a list of current civil rights organizations.

The Equal Rights Amendment

The concept behind the Equal Rights Amendment was simple enough: Congress would have the power to enforce legal equality between men and women via an amendment to the constitution. From 1923 until 1970, the amendment was introduced for consideration during every congressional session but almost never made it to a vote. Despite this seeming inertia, there was a change afoot during the latter part of this period. The activism of the 1960s that gave way to second-wave feminism and saw the formation of organizations like NOW in 1966 provided for publicity of the Equal Rights Amendment. It passed the House of Representatives and Senate in 1972 and then went to the states for ratification. Many states ratified it quickly but there was also a lot of debate between those who supported the amendment and those opposed to it. As the deadline for ratification loomed in 1979, 30 of the required 38 states had ratified the amendment. Congress extended the ratification deadline to 1982 but no additional states ratified the amendment.

Notable Supreme Court Cases:

  • Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp., 400 U.S. 542 (1971) - this was the first sex discrimination case under Title VII. It held that employers could not refuse to hire women with pre-school aged children while hiring men with children of the same age.
  • Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (1971) - this case struck down an Illinois law that stated "males must be preferred to females" when dealing with appointing estate administrators. This specification was found to be undeniable gender bias and the Court held that the law’s dissimilar treatment of men and women was unconstitutional.
  • Geduldig v. Aiello, 417 U.S. 484 (1974) - this case held that the denial of insurance benefits for work loss resulting from a normal pregnancy did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The California insurance program at issue did not exclude workers from eligibility based on sex but excluded pregnancy from a list of compensable disabilities.
  • United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996) - This case ruled against the Virginia Military Institute's male-only admissions policy. VMI was the last public institution with a gender bias and this case ended that issue.
  • Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. ___ (2014) - this case allowed closely held for-profit corporations to be exempt from a law its owners religiously object to if there was a less restrictive means of furthering the law's interest, according to the provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). In this particular case, the corporation did not have to follow the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act due to the court's decision.

Library Resources:

  • Anne K. Bingaman, A Commentary on the Effect of the Equal Rights Amendment on State Laws and Institutions: Prepared for the California Commission on the Status of Women's Equal Rights Amendment Project, KF4758 .B5 1975