Voss Essay: Help Wanted

The Legal and Journalism History to End Segregated Job Ads

Kimberly Wilmot Voss

The battleground was the help-wanted advertisements in newspapers. For the journalists – and their supporters – it was about the First Amendment. For the women – and their supporters – it was about equality. Up through the late 1960s and early 1970s, the classified ads had been divided by gender: “Help Wanted-Male” and “Help Wanted-Female.” Not surprisingly, the job ads followed gender-based stereotypes. For example, there were clerical employment ads for women and management positions for men.[i]

The women first sought relief on numerous levels ranging from organized public protests of newspapers to direct appeals to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was created in 1964. Not wanting to be told how to run their newspapers and worried that this was a slippery slope leading to increased governmental oversight of the news side of the newspaper, journalists defended the practice as a First Amendment right.[ii]

Ultimately, the fight would be taken to the courts – just as women had fought for employment rights at newspapers. As journalism historian Kay Mills wrote: “Enlightenment alone did not unlock newsroom doors. Legal action helped.”[iii] For decades, one of the only places for female journalists at newspapers was the women’s pages. Of course, newsrooms were not the only places unwelcome to women. Many industries limited opportunities for female workers, and there were concerns that the segregated want-ads reinforced it.

N.O.W. and Job Inequality

One of the first major undertakings of the National Organization for Women, founded in the mid-1960s, was to address what some members felt was a lack of action by the E.E.O.C. to examine job inequality. The women’s group wanted decisions about new guidelines for sex-segregated newspaper classified ads, retirement requirements for women workers, and improved maternity rights.

In 1965, the E.E.O.C. ruled that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act allowed employers to place help wanted ads in sex-segregated columns. N.O.W. officers sent a letter to the E.E.O.C. requesting an end to sex-segregated job ads: “As long as the E.E.O.C. continues to sanction ‘Help Wanted-Male’ and ‘Help-Wanted Female’ columns in the newspapers, this reinforces a public impression that the E.E.O.C. does not regard its Title VII mandate to combat sex discrimination as seriously as it regards its mandate on other forms of discrimination. In other words, employers and unions are doubly encouraged to discriminate against women – encouraged by the sex-segregated classified columns themselves and encouraged by the protracted inaction of the E.E.O.C.”[iv]

Following pressure from N.O.W. and other political factions, the E.E.O.C. reversed its decision and called for the end of the segregated columns. One study noted, “The debate over help-wanted ads was not only a crucial moment in the initial battle to legally define sex discrimination; it also helped escalate the women’s movement.”[v]

Despite the E.E.O.C. reversal, newspapers continued to fight the change based on both the First Amendment and the ease for job seekers. According to an article in Editor & Publisher, “What of the poor reader who has to wade through the five pages of help wanted in my daily paper or the 45 pages in the Los Angeles Times? This would appear to make it even tougher on the already weaker sex.”[vi] Legally, newspapers may have had the highest First Amendment protection, particularly for their editorial content. However, this was really a question of commercial speech or advertising – which has significantly less First Amendment protections.

Responding to the efforts of N.O.W. to end segregated ads, Life magazine published an opinion column in the December 6, 1968 issue titled “Unsexing the Classifieds.” The article described the N.O.W. members as “militant ladies” who were “agitating to forbid U.S. newspapers from running separate Male and Female want ads.”[vii] Several N.O.W. members countered the Life editorial by getting their rebuttals read into the Congressional Record. According to Clarenbach and Friedan: “What a shame that one of our most widely read magazines publishes an editorial as uninformed, misleading, and irrational as ‘Unsexing the Classifieds.’ Your writer wrote the editorial either without exploring the issues or with the intent of misleading the public.”[viii] A female E.E.O.C. commissioner wrote: “Although you may ‘see no need’ to create a single column for most help-wanted advertisements, the Commission has concluded, after considerable public discussion and staff review, that the use of separate ‘Help wanted-male’ and ‘Help wanted-female’ column headings has a clear discriminatory effect.”[ix]

N.O.W. also organized a protest of the New York Times because of the newspaper’s discriminatory classified policy. Both women and men marched with picket signs with slogans such as “Women Can Think as Well as Type” and “I Didn’t Get a Job Through the New York Times.” The protestors also handed out information about the newspaper’s practice, which limited women’s opportunities.[x] The American Newspaper Publishers Association faced N.O.W. picketers, too.[xi]

Segregated Ads Go to Court

In addition to the debate raging in the media and on the sidewalks outside newspapers, there were several lawsuits regarding the gender-segregated want ads in newspapers. In one example, the A.N.P.A., as well as the Washington Star, sued the E.E.O.C. in the Washington, D.C., District Court in 1968. The newspaper claimed that the E.E.O.C. lacked the authority to issue the ban on sex-segregation employment ads. In response, the court ruled that the Agency had the right to issue guidelines.[xii]

By 1973, the Supreme Court addressed the legality of sex-segregated employment ads in newspapers. The case was based on a Pittsburgh city ordinance that prohibited gender discrimination. In response, the Pittsburgh Press filed a lawsuit to overturn the law. In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court ruled against the newspaper and in support of the anti-discrimination law. The ruling ended the use of segregated want ads. According to the majority ruling, “By implication, at least, an advertiser whose want ad appears in the ‘jobs-male interest’ column is likely to discriminate against women in its hiring decisions.”[xiii]

The court addressed the First Amendment defense in the minority opinion. According to Justice Stewart: “Those who think the First Amendment can and should be subordinated to other socially desired interests will hail today’s decision. But I find it frightening. For I believe the constitutional guarantee of a free press is more than precatory. I believe that it is a clear command that government must never be allowed to lay its heavy editorial hand on any newspaper in this country.”[xiv]

Many newspapers were unhappy with the decision. According to an Editor & Publisher article: “Newspapers in states that do not have city or state ordinances similar to Pittsburgh’s are under no obligation to revise their practices but it is a sure thing that the decision will provide impetus for more legislation of this type. The dissenters in the Supreme Court concluded that a dangerous precedent has been set which may have an effect on what newspapers can or cannot print far beyond the limits of the classified department. The warning is clear.”[xv] At the time, there were at least 19 states with similar legislation.

Regardless, around the time of the ruling, many newspapers were beginning to change their classified policies. A study of U.S. metropolitan newspapers between 1966 and 1975 found that for nearly five years (1966-1970) newspapers refused to change their policies on their sex-segregated help wanted columns, despite the legal rules prohibiting their use. Then, between 1971 and 1973, virtually all newspapers stopped the practice of sorting job ads by sex.[xvi] Further fear of government over-reach into newspaper content was unfounded.

About the author: Kimberly Wilmot Voss (PhD, Maryland) is a full professor of journalism at the University of Central Florida. She has taught media law for more than a decade and has written four books about women and mass communication history. Her upcoming book is about fashion journalism history.

Featured image: “Want Ads,” The State, 1 June 1958, p. 8D. Newspapers on Microfilm. Published Material Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina.


[i] Peter W. Kerman, “Sex Discrimination in Help Wanted Advertising,” Santa Clara Law Review, 1974, 183-209.

[ii] Kerman, “Sex Discrimination,” 200.

[iii] Kay Mills, A Place in the News: From the Women’s Pages to the Front Page (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 149.

[iv] Betty Friedan letter to Clifford L. Alexander, Jr., October 25, 1967. Papers of Kathryn Clarenbach, Box 9, folder 3, University of Wisconsin.

[v] Nicholas Pedriana, “Help Wanted NOW: Legal Resources, the Women’s Movement, and the Battle Over Sex-Segregated Job Advertisements,” Social Problems, May 2004, 182.

[vi] Stan Finsness, “Pooling of help wanted ads ‘disservice to job seekers,’” Editor & Publisher, August 31, 1968, 44.

[vii] “Unsexing the Classifieds,” Life, December 6, 1968. Papers of Kathryn Clarenbach, University of Wisconsin.

[viii] Kathryn F. Clarenbach and Betty Friedan, “The Editor, Life Magazine,” Congressional Record, December 10, 1968.

[ix] Elizabeth J. Kuck, “The Editor, Life Magazine,” Congressional Record, December 10, 1968.

[x] “11 Picket Times Classified Office To Protest Male-Female Labels,” New York Times, August 31, 1967.

[xi] “Women Picket ANPA for De-sexing of Ads,” Editor & Publisher, December 14, 1968, 76.

[xii] American Newspaper Publishing Association v. Alexander, United States District Court, 1968.

[xiii] “Law on Sex-Labeled Job Ads is Upheld,” New York Times, June 22, 1973.

[xiv] Robert U. Brown, “That Classified Ad Decision,” Editor & Publisher, July 14, 1973, 58.

[xv] Ibid. Also, see Kathleen L. Endres, “’Help-Wanted Female’: Editor & Publisher Frames A Civil Rights Issue,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2004, 7-21.

[xvi] Nicholas Pedriana and Amanda Abraham, “Now You See Them, Now You Don’t: The Legal Field and Newspaper Desegregation of Sex-Segregated Help Wanted Ads 1965-75,” Law & Social Inquiry, Fall 2006, 905-938.

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