Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Who does it really protect?

Why You Might Have Heard of Title VII

In October of 2019, the Supreme Court heard three landmark cases on whether or not to roll back employment protections for the LGBTQ+ community. The cases, the most well known of which was R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, dealt with the question of whether or not Title VII’s ban on sex-based discrimination protects against workplace discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. In June of 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII’s ban on workplace discrimination based on sex did in fact protect against this discrimination.  


When it was passed, Title VII also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or EEOC. Throughout its more than 50-year-history, this federal agency has worked to enforce civil rights laws that protect against employment discrimination. In 2012, the EEOC ruled that federal employers and agencies were prohibited from discriminating in hiring, firing, or promoting on the grounds of gender identity, change of sex, or transgender status. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that such discrimination in the workplace was illegal under federal law. 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

As it is written, Title VII bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Since its passage, the amendment has also been used to protect against sexual harassment, sex stereotyping, and discrimination against pregnant workers, as well as to ban employment penalties for older or differently-abled workers. 

The History

Title VII was passed as part of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The word “sex” was added only two days before the bill was passed in the house. Congressperson Howard D. Smith of Virginia made the addition, likely to stop the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Still, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Act and Title VII into law on July 2, 1964. 

However, the fight to ensure consistent protection of female workers by federal law did not end with the passage of Title VII. Instead, the first Executive Orders signed to enforce civil rights did not mention “sex” as a civil rights protection. Furthermore, in 1965, the EEOC voted to allow sex segregation in job advertising. In particular, the National Organization of Women and some of its founders: Betty Friedan, Kathryn Clarenbach, Aileen Hernandez, and Caroline Davis pushed for not only a more explicit mention of protections for women in Johnson’s Executive Orders, but in the policies implemented by the newly formed EEOC. 

Early in its legislative history, Title VII worked to protect people who were born biologically female from discrimination in the workplace. Since then, different court cases, as well as legislative changes, have expanded the application of Title VII to other protected classes, including protections against age-based discrimination in employment. Title VII, the Supreme Court ruled in 2020, also protects lesbian, gay and transgender employees from workplace discrimination. The law also ensures that people with different ability statuses are provided public accommodations and protected from discrimination at work. 

So What

Title VII is often credited with increasing the presence of women in the workplace. The EEOC has led to hundreds of lawsuits targeting discrimination in hiring, promoting, and now firing of employees based on sex. However, despite the fact that the amendment is credited with opening up the workplace to groups that were once excluded, more groups are continuously attempting to claim its protection. 

In addition, although Title VII now addresses explicit discrimination in the workplace, it is often unable to account for other factors like hiring bias that still result in employment discrimination. In 2018, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received over 76,000 complaints of workplace discrimination. “Sex” was the second most common charge filed with the agency, with it comprising 32.3 percent of all charges. However, the agency filed only 41 lawsuits that alleged sexual harassment in 2018. Furthermore, the EEOC filed only 199 lawsuits that alleged any kind of discrimination last year but resolved over 90,000 charges of discrimination. Ultimately, this indicates that the agency finds only a small percentage of claims of discrimination worthy of investigation. 

The oral arguments for the three linked Supreme Court cases mentioned earlier were held on October 8, 2019. In June 2020, the Court issued its ruling in landmark civil rights victory for the LGBTQ+ community, broadly interpreting Title VII’s ban on “sex-based” discrimination. The ruling was an unexpected win for the  1million LGBTQ+ workers who identify as transgender and the community’s 7.1 million lesbian, gay and bisexual workers. 

This legislation is absolutely critical for protecting civil rights in the workforce and ensuring that the workplace is diverse and open. The history of Title VII is a key chapter in the fight for the expansion of Civil Rights in the United States.

Think Further

  1. Why might the inclusion of the word “sex” in Title VII have prevented the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act? 
  2. Can you think of any reasons why the EEOC was hesitant to enforce the ban on sex-based discrimination in particular? 
  3. How does a ban on ‘sex’ based discrimination protect against employment discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity?


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Learn More

  1. ‘Because of Sex’ – The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/podcasts/the-daily/transgender-supreme-court.html. 
  2. Civil Rights Act of 1964 | DocsTeach. https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/civil-rights-act-of-1964/342/1. 
  3. Founding | National Organization for Women. now.org, https://now.org/about/history/founding-2/.