Lily Ledbetter. Cesar Chavez. Eleanor Roosevelt. While these names have been deservedly etched into the history of workplace equality and labor leadership, they’re far from the only ones to have made a difference. In fact, many of the folks who had the greatest impact remained out of the public eye, preferring to instead divert attention towards the legislature they were introducing, groups they were forming and protests they were organizing.
But while virtue is often said to be its own reward, it’s also important to honor the individuals behind these accomplishments. Not just for the sake of praise, but to provide role models who can serve as an inspiration for generations to come. In that vein, here are a few lesser-known figures who have avoided the mainstream spotlight, but have nonetheless achieved incredible workplace equality milestones. While you may not have heard their names before, you have almost certainly felt their impact.
1. Martha Griffiths
If not for Martha Griffiths, women may not have been included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at all. When a fellow congressman proposed an amendment identifying sex as a protected class, the floor erupted into laughter. Griffiths responded by saying “I presume that if there had been any necessity to point out that women were a second–class sex, the laughter would have proved it,” and the room fell silent (cue mic drop). She continued to tenaciously argue for the amendment and eventually, persuaded enough colleagues to support it until it passed, cementing her legacy.
2. Winifred C. Stanley
Decades before J-Law penned her iconic essay denouncing the wage gap, Winifred C. Stanley was fighting the battle for equal pay. In 1942, Stanley introduced a House Resolution entitled “Prohibiting Discrimination in Pay on Account of Sex”. Though the resolution failed, it became the foundation for the Equal Pay Act of 1963 over 20 years later, which required that employers provide equal pay for equal work, regardless of sex. While we’re still working to close the gender pay gap today, Stanley’s proposal was a monumental step at a time when discussion around equal pay was still far outside the mainstream.
3. Eleanor Holmes Norton
Eleanor Holmes Norton made history when Jimmy Carter appointed her as the first female head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission back in 1977, but her work hasn’t slowed down since then. In 1980, she created the first formal guidelines to define and prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace, which dictated “that employers have an ‘affirmative duty’ to prevent and eliminate sexual harassment, which may be ‘either physical or verbal in nature,’” according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Norton hasn’t rested on her laurels, though — at 79, she’s still fighting the good fight in congress as a Representative of DC.
4. Aileen Hernandez
As the first women appointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Aileen Hernandez was tasked with overseeing the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When she grew tired of “the slow pace at which the commission was addressing sex-discrimination cases”, according to The New York Times, she became a founding member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and later, its president. There, she testified before the senate on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment, which aimed to secure constitutional equality for women. Although it passed congress, it failed at the state legislature level. But Hernandez was not one to give up. She spent the rest of her life as head of a consulting firm that fought discrimination based on sex and race, an organizer for women’s groups and a public advocate for workplace equality until her death in February 2017.
5. Rachel B. Tiven
While Rachel B. Tiven is in just her ninth month as CEO of Lambda Legal, a nonprofit that focuses on securing LGBT rights through litigation, education and public policy, she’s already made a significant impact. With a distinguished background in civil rights litigation, Tiven is familiar with the nuances involved in LGBT employment law and ready to lead the charge ahead. “I’m particularly proud of our expertise on employment discrimination and protecting LGBT families,” Tiven said in an interview with The Daily Kos. “We are currently suing in federal court on behalf of a math professor who was fired from a community college in South Bend, Indiana, and a security guard who was fired from a hospital in Savannah, Georgia, just to name two.” The results of these court cases (and others Lambda Legal is pursuing) are critical, as they may establish important precedents for prohibiting discrimination against workers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity — something that is currently legal in many areas throughout the U.S.
6. Jennifer Keelan
How, you might ask, could an 8-year-old girl have left such an impact on the workplace? Well, Jennifer Keelan was one of the youngest participants involved in the Capitol Crawl, a protest that involved a large group of disabled people (many of whom used wheelchairs) crawling up the steps of the capitol building in order to demonstrate the obstacles they face on a daily basis. The ultimate goal of this was to persuade congress to support the Americans with Disabilities Act, a piece of legislation that prohibits employment discrimination against those with a disability and requires employers to provide them with reasonable accommodations. Keelan left behind the wheelchair she used due to Cerebral Palsy to make her way up the capitol steps by elbows and knees alone, defiantly declaring “I’ll take all night if I have to!” Shortly after, the Americans with Disabilities Act became law.