It might come as a surprise to moms, daycare workers, or any woman who has carried a weighty toddler on her hip that there were once “women’s protective laws” forbidding members of the female sex from taking jobs that required them to lift more than 25 pounds or work more than eight hours a day. Leah “Rosie” Rosenfeld was a single mother of a dozen children working in the parched towns of southeastern California’s Mojave Desert for the Southern Pacific Railroad, when she came head-to-head with these so-called women’s protective laws in 1955.
Rosenfeld applied for a promotion to become a station agent, but was passed over for a male employee with a decade’s less experience. Southern Pacific used women’s protective laws as cover for not promoting Rosenfeld, arguing the new job would require her to lift more than 25 pounds. As Rosenfeld later told railroad historian Shirley Burman in a 2009 interview for Trains magazine, she was already lifting far heavier loads than 25 pounds in the current job she had with Southern Pacific, and was getting paid less than she would have as station agent.
For more than a decade, Rosenfeld kept applying for promotions, and Southern Pacific kept passing her over for male employees with less experience. In 1966 Southern Pacific denied her a promotion for the fourth time, again citing women’s protective laws, at which point Rosenfeld sought help from the newly-formed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This federal agency is responsible for enforcing Title
VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.” The EEOC encouraged Rosenfeld to sue Southern Pacific for violating federal law.
Rosenfeld’s lawsuit claimed Southern Pacific discriminated against her when it hired a junior male employee instead of Rosenfeld “solely because of her sex.” On Aug. 30, 1968, the court ruled in Rosenfeld’s favor. Southern Pacific quickly appealed the verdict to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. But the national news media was already taking notice of Rosenfeld’s groundbreaking legal moves.
The NBC News program “The Huntley Brinkley Report” featured Rosenfeld on its April 1, 1970 broadcast about women filing discrimination lawsuits against employers who wouldn’t hire them solely because of their sex. Interviewed at the desk in the train station where she worked, the petite Rosenfeld, her gray hair loosely pulled back from her face, said matter-of-factly:
“There may be some women who work for the pleasure of it, but I think most work because they have to. They have a family to support and they need the money. And I haven’t noticed that the grocery stores give us any discount on food, and yet we’re expected to work at a lower wage. And I don’t think it’s fair.”
On June 5, 1971 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision to invalidate sections of the California Labor Code, stating, “The premise of Title VII, the wisdom of which is not in question here, is that women are now to be on equal footing with men… The footing is not equal if a male employee may be appointed to a particular position on a showing that he is physically qualified, but a female employee is denied an opportunity to demonstrate personal physical qualification.”
The court’s decision made headlines, but not all of them were celebratory. The San Bernardino County Sun ran a story from the United Press International wire service with the patronizing banner: “Lady, You Can Have the Job If You Can Lift 50 Pounds.”
Rosenfeld told friend and railroad historian Burman she didn’t have much time to enjoy her promotion before she retired. But her actions helped the countless women who would come after her. As Rosenfeld’s attorney wrote to his client in a letter, “You must realize that you were a pioneer in the battle for sex equality and that you made legal history. You should be proud of what you have done.”
Munts, Raymond, and Rice David C. “Women Workers: Protection or Equality?” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 24.1 (1970): 3-13. Web.
Mackin, Catherine. “The Huntley-Brinkley Report.” The Huntley-Brinkley Report. NBC News. 1 Apr. 1970. Television.
Dow, Bonnie J. “Chapter 2.” Watching Women’s Liberation, 1970: Feminism’s Pivotal Year on the Network News. N.p.: U of Illinois, 2014. 77-78. Print.
Burman, Shirley. “Women and Railroading.” Trains Magazine. Kalmbach Publishing Co., 16 Nov. 2009. Web. 24 June 2016.
“Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. USA.gov, n.d. Web. 24 June 2016.
Leah Rosenfeld, Appellee, v. Southern Pacific Company, a Delaware Corporation, Appellant.leah Rosenfeld, Appellee, v. Southern Pacific Company, a Delaware Corporation, Et Al., Appellants, 444 F.2d 1219 (9th Cir. 1971). U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. 1 June 1971. Justia US Law. Web. 24 June 2016.
UPI. “Lady, You Can Have the Job If You Can Lift 50 Pounds.” The San Bernardino County Sun 5 June 1971: A17. Newspapers.com. Web. 24 June 2016.