'Accidental Heroines' in Title VII sex discrimination cases discussed

By Renee Griffin
U-M Law

Gillian Thomas was practicing employment law in 2006 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling in favor of plaintiff Sheila White, finding that her employer had violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by retaliating against her for complaining about a supervisor’s sexual harassment.

Thomas, now a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, was, of course, well-versed in this area of law, but she realized that even she “didn’t understand a lot about the real people who were at the heart of all of these cases,” she told students during a talk at the University Michigan Law School on November 4.

“As I read accounts of her case...I realized there just wasn’t a lot of Sheila White in what I was reading about,” Thomas said. “There was a lot about what the court had done, and what it might mean for employees and lawyers and employers, but there really wasn’t anything about Sheila White.”

During the talk, which was sponsored by the Women Law Students Association, the ACLU at Michigan Law School, and the Office of Career Planning, Thomas discussed her efforts to highlight the stories of White and other women in her new book, “Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work.”

“I got really interested in learning those stories, and then telling those stories, because [those women] had to come forward and help make law—help make Title VII what it is, and help make sex discrimination what it is—when there really wasn’t anything [existing at that time],” Thomas said. “At least I had their cases to rely on when I litigated on behalf of my clients. As a lawyer and as a woman in the workplace who benefited from those laws, I really felt compelled to tell those stories.”

In her book, Thomas—who joined the ACLU in 2015 after working at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Legal Momentum (formerly NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund)—sought to unpack the history of Title VII sex discrimination cases and focus on the “accidental heroines” whose names were forever attached to key moments in the law’s history.

Thomas told the story of Ann Hopkins, who brought a lawsuit against her former employer, Price Waterhouse, when she was denied partnership at the accounting firm because the hiring partners thought she was not feminine enough. The theory of “sex stereotyping” that won Hopkins her landmark Supreme Court case was then brand-new as a violation of Title VII.

“There is a moment [where my clients] realize, ‘This is not about anything I have power over. This is something about the world that I live in, the world I exist in, and it’s not fair,’” Thomas said. “That experience changed Ann Hopkins.”

The ruling from Hopkins’s case likely will be “front and center” in the LGBTQ discrimination cases (two about sexual orientation and one about gender identity) that were argued before the court in early October, Thomas noted. 

She concluded her talk by recognizing the work yet to be done in the area of sex discrimination law and the crucial progress made thus far. “This book was intended to give voice to some incredible women who no one knows about,” Thomas said. “But by celebrating them I certainly don’t mean to be suggesting that we are done, that we’ve achieved sex equality in the workplace—far from it. What I do find heartening is realizing just how far we’ve come in what is really the blink of an eye in historical terms.”