Mazel tov, Chai Feldblum
On Monday, President Obama announced his nomination for Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and I couldn't be happier about his pick: Chai Feldblum, Professor of Law at Georgetown, who also happens to be an out Jewish lesbian.
The pick is fitting for historical and contemporary reasons. Let's start with the origins of the EEOC, which opened its doors in 1965 to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, religious, race, and national origin. Sex was actually an afterthought to the bill, added by a conservative southern congressman either as a tactic to prevent its passage or as a way to promote the rights of white women to "counteract" the new rights that the bill would give African-Americans.
In any case, the EEOC dragged its feet when it came to enforcing the law against sex discrimination in employment, as Sonia Pressman Fuentes -- the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel of the EEOC -- discovered. This Jewish lawyer made it her cause to press the EEOC to do its job with regard to sex discrimination. She also encouraged Betty Friedan -- a leader in the nascent second wave of feminism after the 1963 publication of her The Feminine Mystique -- to think of a way to address this issue on a larger scale. Friedan did exactly that when she created the National Organization for Women (NOW), of which Pressman Fuentes was a founding member. One of the main goals of NOW's original platform was to push the EEOC to enforce Title VII for women.
Today, a major focus of the civil rights movement is to expand the protections offered by non-discrimination legislation. Currently pending in Congress is the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. Chai Feldblum -- in addition to helping draft the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 -- is a leading expert on ENDA, which has been introduced in every Congress except one since 1994 (albeit not always including the gender identity protections), and looks likely to pass this year. I don't think I could put it better than Nan Hunter, another professor of law at Georgetown (and, incidentally, Chai Feldblum's partner), who wrote: "probably the most important effect of [Chai's nomination] will be when ENDA passes. The EEOC will be the agency responsible for issuing regulations for its enforcement. Having Chai there to set the framework for the initial regulatory response to ENDA is important beyond words. Mazel tov!"
Mazel tov is right. I'm kicking off the new year with a cheer of hope and pride for Chai and a new generation of Jewish women working to reinforce and expand civil rights.