Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corporation (1971)


Ida Phillips was a wife and mother of seven children living in Orlando, Florida. She worked as a waitress while helping to raise her children, who ranged in age from three to sixteen. In 1966, Phillips was earning $51 a week. She saw an advertisement for an assembly line job at Martin-Marietta Corporation, a missile manufacturer. Martin-Marietta was looking for one-hundred new employees, who would earn one-hundred to one-hundred and twenty-five dollars a week. When Ida went to turn in her job application, she was informed by Martin-Marietta’s secretary that they were not accepting applications from mothers of preschool-aged children because of alleged higher rates of absenteeism. The same standard did not apply to men with preschool-age children. Martin-Marietta assumed that mothers would be the ones to take care of children in the case of emergencies, or may be distracted by their children’s needs during business hours.

Outraged, Phillips wrote to President Lyndon B Johnson, who had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 just two years before. Phillips said she was being denied equal employment. She was referred to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Although Ida Phillips was a White woman, African-American mothers were twice as likely to work as White mothers at the time. James Robinson, a NAACP attorney, represented Ida Phillips in court. Robinson argued that Phillips was denied employment based on her sex, which violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act outlawed employment discrimination based on a host of factors, one of which was sex. However, sex was added last minute to the document, as almost an afterthought. In representing Phillips, Robinson said that women should have “the right to show their own merits.” He argued that 4.2 million women’s jobs could be in jeopardy if the Court allowed this discrimination.

Martin-Marietta claimed that there was no gender discrimination since their company did not ban all women from working for them - just those who had preschool-age children. The Supreme Court was asked if private companies could discriminate based on motherhood but not fatherhood under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 


In a Per Curiam opinion, the Court agreed with Phillips that denying jobs to mothers but not fathers of preschool-age children violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Court wrote that there was no evidence that a mother’s job performance differed from a father’s job performance. Therefore, the gender discrimination in Martin-Marietta’s hiring policies was basically the same as if they had refused to hire women entirely. However, the Supreme Court ordered the case back to a lower court to determine if there were statistics backing up Martin-Marietta’s claims about absenteeism in mothers of preschool children. Statistics proving so were not provided to the Supreme Court. 

Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote a concurring opinion. In it, he argued that minimum qualifications for jobs should be the same for male and female candidates. The only exception to this rule is for jobs requiring “specific physical characteristics.” Traditional gender roles should not be a reason to deny a woman a job. 


Though it was remanded to a lower court, Martin-Marietta Company settled the Phillips case. Phillips was given a modest settlement which she used to help buy a home, purchase an air conditioning unit, and go on a trip with her young daughter to Disney World. 

If the Court had accepted Martin-Marietta’s differing standards for mothers and fathers, employment could have been denied for a multitude of meaningless factors, including other gender-based factors. The Court’s expansive look at the Civil Rights Act of 1964 remains today. However, the Court allows for companies to discriminate based on sex if they are able to prove that one sex is better suited for the position. The same standard does not apply to race; it is illegal to have “White Only” or “Black Only” jobs. 

The percentage of women working with children under six has jumped from twenty-five percent in 1971 to seventy percent in 2015. However, working mothers still face discrimination in the workplace. While outright bans are not allowed because of Phillips, and biases may not be as openly expressed, negative feelings and subtle practices remain. Mothers are still wrongly viewed as less committed to their employment, which leads to lower pay, fewer job advancements, and employment denial. Often companies will use some other factor to mask bias against motherhood.

Think Further

  1. Why do you think working mothers continue to struggle to be paid equally, given the same job opportunities, and given the same promotions as their male counterparts?
  2. If the Court found that statistics proved mothers of preschool-aged children were more likely to miss work, could a company ban hiring these mothers altogether? 
  3. Why was it important for the NAACP to take on the case of a White mother? 


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Learn More

  1. “Ida Phillips v. Martin-Marietta.” 
  2. “Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corporation.” Oyez,
  3. Thomas, Gillian. “When a Chief Justice Declared That Women Make Better Secretaries,” The Atlantic (9 December 2015)