Historians On Trial General

In 1979, The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charged Sears, Roebuck and Co. with gender discrimination in their hiring and promotion practices. Statistical evidence gathered by the EEOC revealed a disproportionate amount of men in high-level commission sales positions at Sears department stores in a predominantly female sales workforce. Between 1973 and 1980, women constituted 61 percent of the sales applicants, but only 27 percent of women applicants were hired for commission positions1. The EEOC argued that Sears had violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination on the part of employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The case went to trial at the U.S. District Court in Chicago in September of 1984, and in January of 1986, Judge Nordberg decided in favor in Sears.

What is noteworthy about this case is the role that history and historians played in the trial. Both Sears and the EEOC utilized the expert testimony of women’s historians. Rosalind Rosenberg, associate professor of history at Barnard College, testified on behalf of Sears. She argued that the commitment to working late and on weekends, which was often demanded by commission sales positions, turned women off of these jobs because women had historically proven that they held different professional goals than men, and that it was this cultural difference between men and women that explained the discrepancy in high-level sales positions, not employer discrimination. Testifying for the EEOC was Alice Kessler-Harris, professor of history at Hofstra University, who argued that Sears could have done more to counteract the cultural and historical bias against women working at professional levels, and that women have historically sought to attain the highest professional positions available to them2.

The well-documented and articulate testimonies of Rosenberg and Kessler-Harris present important interpretations of the history of women’s labor and equal employment opportunity. Their testimonies were widely discussed in the press and in professional feminist and historical journals, and both women received criticism and support by contemporaries in their field. While Rosenberg received much criticism from feminist historians, this project will attempt to take an objective viewpoint of the arguments of the historians, focusing on the historical debates brought to light during the case. Their participation in this case sparked a debate over the role of history in the courtroom, as well as the nature of historical practice itself. Does a historian simply relay facts of the past, or does he interpret them? Should a historian understand history merely to know, or should she use her knowledge to act? Moreover, should women's history serve the goals of the feminist movement, or should it strive to obtain a more objective academic status?

The material presented on the site will consist of transcriptions and a few scans of the documents of three collections housed at New York University and Harvard University. The Research File of Jon Weiner relating to Equal Employment Opportunity v. Sears, Roebuck and Company at NYU includes court documents and a small number of newspaper clippings about the case. (Weiner is a Journalist for The Nation who wrote "Women's History on Trial," September 7, 1985.) The Rosalind Rosenberg papers at Harvard also include court documents as well as a mix of newspaper articles, scholarly articles, and correspondence with contemporaries in her field. The Sandi E. Cooper (professor of history at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York) papers also at Harvard contain court documents and clippings of newspaper articles. All three collections together comprise 6 boxes, and it is expected that there is much duplication with the court documents. Kessler-Harris has not deposited her papers into an archive as of this date, so efforts will be made to contact Kessler-Harris and obtain correspondence and other materials that reflect her point of view. If this strategy fails, the project will consider creating a space for Kessler-Harris' viewpoints on the site, which will feature quotations from articles and her testimonies in an attempt to represent her standpoint.

The purpose of the exhibit is to present a balanced depiction of both sides of this landmark case, focusing on the arguments of the two historians and the resulting professional dialogue. These collections offer a unique research opportunity to researchers or students of law, labor history, women’s history, civil rights, and corporate sex discrimination. Yet other than online finding aids and journal articles, this case has virtually no web presence. The exhibit will include interactive features that will help to foster renewed discussion of the case, the historians, and their testimonies.

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