On July 2, 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission celebrated its 50th birthday. The agency opened its doors on July 2, 1965, one year after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Fifty years later, I sat in a room in the EEOC headquarters with several of the agency’s MVPs to celebrate the milestone.
One of the speakers was Eleanor Holmes Norton, who currently serves as Delegate to Congress for the District of Columbia. Before she served in Congress, though, Holmes Norton served as the first female Chair of the EEOC. She described her move into the office in 1977. “The painters came in to change the name on the door. I told them to leave ‘-man’ off of ‘chairman.’” Ever since then, the position has simply been called “Chair.” Holmes Norton joked, “I still have friends who won’t call me Eleanor. They’ll say, ‘Hi, Chair, how ya doing?’”
Today, the EEOC’s five Commissioner positions, Chair included, are all filled by women. I think that shows how far the agency, and employment discrimination law more generally, has come. The EEOC has been at the forefront of groundbreaking employment discrimination statutes, like the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and has further protected employee rights through its interpretive guidance, regulations, and litigation. This summer, I got to be a very small part of that.
During my summer internship with the Appellate Division of the EEOC’s Office of General Counsel, I have been surprised over and over at the richness and depth of employment discrimination law. Even after fifty years of enforcing employment discrimination statutes, there are still issues of first impression. That makes the work of the EEOC’s appellate lawyers particularly important and exciting. In some exciting cases, they get to ask themselves what the rule ought to be, and then build a compelling argument to back it up. And while they don’t always win, cases like Mach Mining v. EEOC and EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch from this year’s Supreme Court docket show that the EEOC’s appellate program has a huge impact on employees’ legal rights.
I feel truly lucky to have been a part of the EEOC’s fiftieth year, and can’t wait to see what the agency will do with the next fifty.
By Leah Tabbert, Human Rights Fellow, Summer 2015
Leah Tabbert is conducting her Human Rights Fellowship at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C.