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History of the National Women's Law Center

The Center began in 1972, when secretaries at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), one of the first public interest law firms in the country, presented the male attorneys with four demands. They wanted better pay. They wanted CLASP to hire women staff attorneys. They wanted to begin a women’s rights project. And they didn’t want to serve coffee any more.

These women knew, and the men of CLASP agreed, that it was time to put the law on the side of women and their families. As its first case, the women’s rights project challenged a company policy that excluded pregnancy from disability coverage, which ultimately led to the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.  It was to be the first of many such victories for the project, which became the independent National Women’s Law Center in 1981.

To move toward its vision of a nation without barriers based on gender, the Center has worked for more than three decades to expand, defend and promote women’s rights at every stage of the legal process — when legislatures are drafting or amending bills, when the executive branch and its agencies are writing regulations to enforce statutes, and when the courts are interpreting laws.


The Center is established as a project of the Center for Law and Social Policy to secure and advance legal rights and protections for women in the courts, in Congress and in the states.

With Roe v.Wade just decided, the Center turns to reproductive rights, and stops the coercive use of an experimental contraceptive on poor and institutionalized women.

The Center files Relf and NWRO v. Weinberger, which secures new HEW regulations to protect poor women from involuntary sterilization.

Congress creates the Child Support Enforcement Program to provide new legal remedies, which the Center plays a central role in expanding in 1984, 1988, 1993, 1996, and 1998.

Women Working in Construction v. Marshall is filed, and in 1978 the Center wins a court order requiring government-enforced, nationwide goals for hiring women in federally funded construction.

The Center wins a landmark court decree, WEAL v.Weinberger, requiring timely government enforcement of Title IX and Executive Order 11246 prohibiting sex discrimination in schools nationwide.

The Center plays a leadership role in passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, establishing that Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on pregnancy.

The Supreme Court adopts the Center’s friend-of-the-court arguments in Califano v. Westcott, establishing that AFDC must be available for two-parent families with unemployed mothers, not just those with unemployed fathers.

The Center brings the first major Title IX case challenging an entire intercollegiate athletic program, Haffer v. Temple University, leading to a precedent-setting, court-ordered settlement expanding the entire women's sports program.

The Center becomes the independent National Women’s Law Center and helps secure an expansion of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit that makes it more valuable to low-income families.

With the Equal Rights Amendment extension drive just expired, Justice O’Connor’s early opinion in MUW v. Hogan adopts arguments advanced by the Center establishing stronger constitutional protection against sex discrimination.

The Center wins Parents Without Partners v. Massinga, establishing a right to state child support enforcement services without regard to income.

IRS determines that almost 1.4 million new taxpayers claimed the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit after the Center convinced IRS to add the credit to the 1040A “short form” the year before.

With Congress beginning to debate major tax reform, the Center organizes and co-chairs the first ever Coalition on Women and Taxes, helping to win important benefits for women in the 1986 Tax Reform Act.

The Supreme Court establishes that sexual harassment violates Title VII, prohibiting sex discrimination in employment, in a case in which the Center participated, and the Center launches a major effort in the courts, Congress and government agencies to expand its legal protection.

With the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, the Center releases the widely quoted report, Setting the Record Straight: Judge Bork and the Future of Women's Rights, forming a basis for successful opposition to his confirmation.

With the Center leading the Title IX coalition, Congress passes the Civil Rights Restoration Act, establishing that all parts of schools, including athletics, are covered by Title IX if any part receives federal funds.

The Center secures $14 million for women and minorities, the largest-ever Executive Order 11246 back-pay award, in Department of Labor v. Harris Trust, while representing Women Employed.

The Center plays a central role in crafting and pressing a national agenda on child care, resulting in passage of the first comprehensive child care legislation since World War II.

Anita Hill’s testimony rivets the country’s attention on sexual harassment, aiding the Center and its allies in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which adds a damages remedy in sexual harassment and other cases and otherwise strengthens employment discrimination law.

Record numbers of women win public office and the Center helps win the Supreme Court case, Franklin v. Gwinnett County, holding that Title IX contains a damages remedy for sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination in schools.

The Center’s three-year Child Care Tax Credits Outreach Campaign assures that millions of low-income families claim significantly more assistance under the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit.

The Center’s analysis of gender stereotyped limitations helps secure congressional legislation and Defense Department policies that open 260,000 new military positions to women, including combat ships and aircraft.

Women Prisoners of the District of Columbia v. D.C., a case developed and co-counseled by the Center, provides critical relief for women subjected to sexual abuse, inferior educational and vocational programs, and unsafe and unsanitary living conditions in D.C. prisons.

The Supreme Court opens the Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel to women, adopting the strongest-ever standard of constitutional protection against sex discrimination, reflecting the Center's lead friend-of-the-court brief.

The Center files 25 Title IX charges against colleges and universities across the country alleging sex discrimination in athletic scholarships and ultimately securing millions of dollars more in scholarships for women students each year.

The Center helps pass the Child Support Performance and Incentive Act, which holds states accountable for improving their child support enforcement programs by basing federal incentive payments to states on their performance records.

The Center wins the landmark Supreme Court decision in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, holding schools accountable under Title IX for student-to-student sexual harassment.

The Center expands women’s access to prescription contraceptives by securing a landmark EEOC ruling that employers’ exclusion of contraceptives from otherwise comprehensive health insurance plans constitutes sex discrimination and serving on the legal team that won the first federal court ruling to the same effect, Erickson v. Bartell Drug Co.

The Center seizes the opportunity to improve the Child Tax Credit, the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit to benefit millions of low- and middle-income families and co-chairs a coalition of more than 350 diverse organizations whose educational efforts limit to some extent the size of the 2001 federal tax cut.

During Title IX’s 30th anniversary year, the Center brings national attention to the discrimination that women and girls still face in education by conducting a nationwide investigation into high school vocational and technical programs, showing that girls are segregated into traditionally female and lower-paying careers, and by exposing a $6.5 million scholarship gap for female athletes at just 30 colleges and universities alone.

The Center releases the groundbreaking Women and Smoking: A National and State-by-State Report Card, the first comprehensive assessment of women’s smoking-related health conditions and tobacco-control policies, urging states and the nation to adopt cost-effective, proven policies to reduce smoking among women and girls.

The Center, building on its pioneering legal theories, partners with the NAACP to inform and activate African American communities to fight threats to reproductive health services by a growing number of hospitals refusing to provide emergency and other forms of contraception, full HIV/AIDS counseling, tubal ligations, and abortions.

The Center achieves a groundbreaking Supreme Court victory in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education, a critically important Title IX decision that makes clear that the law prohibits retaliation against those who complain about sex discrimination and restores protections essential to the effective enforcement of Title IX and other bedrock civil rights laws.

The Center issues its quadrennial 50-state report card and analysis of state child care tax provisions, Making Care Less Taxing, documenting improvements in 23 state tax provisions secured by the Center and its partners, and engages in an intensive outreach campaign with state child care groups that increases the number of families claiming tax credits to help pay for child care and meet other needs.

The Center improves women’s economic security by helping to secure the first increase in the federal minimum wage in ten years and gaining House passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2007, which reverses a Supreme Court decision making it nearly impossible for women to obtain relief for sex discrimination in compensation.

The Center releases its groundbreaking report, Nowhere to Turn: How the Individual Health Insurance Market Fails Women, which documents the disparities that women face in the individual insurance market, such as being charged more than men for coverage  and being rejected for coverage for “pre-existing  conditions,” such as having survived domestic violence.

The Center's extensive national  campaign to pass critical pay equity  legislation results in the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay  Act being passed by Congress and signed into law, and its new awareness campaign, “Being a  Woman is Not a Pre-existing  Condition,” galvanizes a national movement  to end insurers’ discriminatory practices  based on gender.

The Center’s groundbreaking reports and public awareness campaign on gender disparities in health insurance bring women’s voices into the health care debate and contribute to the passage of landmark legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The Center wins inclusion of contraception and yearly well-woman visits in a package of preventive health care services that insurance companies must provide without co-pays or deductibles under the Affordable Care Act.

The Center files a Supreme Court brief on behalf of 60 organizations detailing what's at stake for women in the challenge to the landmark Affordable Care Act, which is uphelp as constitutional in a landmark decision.

The Center opens the door to 55,000 military jobs for women by securing an end to the Defense Department policy banning women from direct ground combat.

The Center helps shape the first reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant in nearly 20 years to ensure the health and safety of children in child care, improve the quality of care, and make it easier for families to get and keep child care assistance.