The modern class action, the modern feminist movement, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were all products of the creativity and turmoil of the 1960s. As late as 1961 — one year after Justice Felix Frankfurter rejected new law school graduate Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a law clerk because she was a woman — the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of a Florida statute that required men, but not women, to serve on juries, on the ground that women’s primary role was in the home. As Betty Friedan put it in 1963’s The Feminine Mystique, “In almost every professional field, in business and in the arts and sciences, women are still treated as second-class citizens.” But change was imminent. The Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the founding of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, and a rising social and intellectual feminist movement brought women’s equality into the national conversation. Simultaneously — at least in part in response to the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act — an (all-male) Judicial Conference and Supreme Court in 1966 ushered in the modern era of collective litigation by promulgating Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, and more specifically, Rule 23(b)(2), which provided a formal structure for civil rights plaintiffs to seek aggregate relief for violations of federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Together, these phenomena gave impetus to communities of women to combat legal and cultural injustices through the courts. The result has been widespread improvement in the lives of working women — and men — across many industries.
In this Article, we examine the interplay of Rule 23(b)(2) class actions, feminism, and Title VII sex discrimination doctrine over the past fifty years to show that the theoretical concept of commonality — cohesion, unity — in the women’s movement has had a significant impact on the ability of women to seek collective redress for workplace discrimination through class actions. We describe how the four “waves” of feminism since the 1960s find corresponding analogues in the development of Title VII class action law.
This is not an empirical study, nor is it comprehensive. Rather, our aim is to generate thought as to ways in which class action doctrine simultaneously reflects and reinforces evolving views of feminism and gender equality. We acknowledge that class actions are not the sole standard bearers for impact litigation, and that individual suits — whether brought by individuals of any gender or by physicians — have been vital to the establishment of anti-discrimination legal norms in the area of gender equality. Even so, we argue that Rule 23(b)(2) suits continue to serve a vital function by allowing women to enforce those established norms, overcoming classic barriers to judicial justice such as lack of resources, lack of access to lawyers, and retaliation by employers against individuals who file suit. As Anita Hill recently argued in a critique of the technology sector, “Class action lawsuits can force industry-wide change, even in the most entrenched, male-dominated industries.”
Brooke D. Coleman and Elizabeth G. Porter,
Reinvigorating Commonality: Gender & Class Actions, 92 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 895