Since World War II, the advancement of women 's rights ranks along with the civil rights movement as one of the most important steps toward making the United States a more just society.
Many of us raised in the 1950s saw our mothers denied jobs for which they were qualified, given menial assignments below their talents, or pushed out of the work force altogether. (My own mother was forced to quit her job after she got married.)
As that history of injustice was addressed in the 1970s and 1980s, how individual men responded was a test for males of that generation much as the black civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was a test for whites. In that sense, the question from the old union song "which side are you on? " mattered.
Which brings us to two little-noticed memos penned by Roberts when he was a young lawyer helping to shape legal policy in Ronald Reagan 's White House from 1982 to 1986. One of the women 's rights issues at the time was whether women should get equal pay for comparable work, and a Washington state "equal worth " case was winding its way through the federal courts.
As the issue heated up in early 1984, Roberts wrote two tartly worded memos, which showed which side he was on.
The first to his boss, Fred Fielding, on Feb. 3, 1984 denounced the notion of equal pay for comparable worth, saying "It is difficult to exaggerate the perniciousness of the 'comparable worth ' theory. It mandates nothing less than central planning of the economy by judges. "
Roberts returned to the issue in a second memo on Feb. 20, 1984, again using language that compared an approach toward rectifying wage discrimination against women to Soviet-style policies, the ultimate insult in the Reagan administration.
Roberts expressed annoyance that three Republican members of Congress would favor what he called "a radical redistributive concept. " He also cited possible justifications for paying women less than men for comparable work, such as the female tendency to lose seniority by leaving the work force for extended periods, presumably for child-rearing.
'To Each ... '
"Their slogan, " Roberts wrote, "may as well be 'From each according to his ability, to each according to her gender. ' "
The existence of these two memos was reported by the Washington Post on Aug. 16 near the end of a lengthy article on the National Archives ' release of Reagan-era documents on Roberts. But the slap at the women 's rights issue has drawn little attention.