When Sears, Roebuck and Co. filed for bankruptcy last week, the news coverage was nostalgic and back-patting, lamenting the end of “the original everything store” and highlighting the retail giant’s notable role in expanding black Americans’ consumer rights.
But Sears was also the nation’s highest-profile discriminator against women. The corporation should be remembered for its poor treatment of workers, its stubbornness when confronted with new sex equality laws, and how the practices it pioneered still shape the American workplace.
For much of the past century, Sears was the world’s biggest general retailer—more than twice the size of its nearest competitor—and the nation’s second largest employer of women. Sears had a reputation for fair prices and quality goods, and one-third of Americans held a Sears credit card. But like most other employers, Sears maintained a highly sex-segregated workplace, with women stuck in low-wage sales and office jobs that offered few routes to advancement or fair compensation.
As women poured into the labor force in the 1960s armed with new workplace rights protections, Sears guarded these inequalities through sexist policies that are now widespread: novel justifications for unequal pay, denial of benefits, forced part-time work, inflexible scheduling, and aggressive union-busting.
In merchandising, Sears set up gendered categories for the same work, with men titled “assistant buyers” and women “buyer’s assistants.” Assistant buyers got a decent salary, a flexible schedule, and benefits such as paid sick days; buyer’s assistants earned an hourly wage, clocked in and out with timecards, and received no benefits. In sales, men hawked high-commission items such as tires and appliances, while women staffed the candy and button counters.
Sears men worked to keep women out of “their” jobs. Despite her business degree, Judy Krusinger was a buyer’s assistant in the furniture department in Sears’ downtown Chicago headquarters. In 1974, she testified to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which was holding hearings on women and poverty, that she and the other women realized that “this is as high as we are going to go, and everyone is very frustrated.” Toby Atherton told the commission that the men in her downtown Chicago sportswear department joked that “the women are the ones that are really doing the work”; indeed, she got used to training men who leapfrogged her into better jobs.
The corporation also practiced intersectional race and sex discrimination, relegating black women to the lowest-paying positions where they would not encounter shoppers.
Deborah Easley had finished some college, she explained to the commission, but she was given an hourly job in the customer relations department, where black women were clustered. She and the others wanted to advance, but “every time they try and receive promotion or try and apply for a better job, they would be called into the office and told that their attendance was not good, or they have been late too much.” They struggled to overcome such false excuses.
Because Sears did business with the federal government, it was required to have an affirmative action program and publish data about where women and men of color worked there. Officials claimed to have excellent plans and statistics but refused to release any details. Board chairman and chief executive Arthur M. Wood told a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1975 that revealing such “confidential business statistics” would point competitors to Sears’ top female talent, who might think, “we need a woman in furniture and a woman in division management; let’s go see if we can hire her away.” This defense papered over pervasive discrimination, with Sears men’s wages topping women’s by more than 200 percent. As one watchdog group concluded in 1974, “The public commitments of Sears’ managers to provide equal opportunities and affirmative action for women are clearly not being implemented.”
To expose and end sexism at Sears, feminists built a major national campaign. Led by the National Organization for Women, they attacked the corporation “from almost every conceivable angle” in the 1970s. They picketed and boycotted Sears stores, disrupted shareholder meetings, confronted corporate leaders, and more. When government authorities were slow to respond, feminists gathered data themselves by entering Sears stores, counting who was working where, and slyly talking with the women about their experiences. They learned that Sears interviewers asked applicants such questions as “What does your husband think of you working outside the home?’ and “What arrangements have you made for the care of your children?”
Feminists also lobbied federal officials. They had convinced the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to hold the 1974 hearings, where NOW leader Anne Ladky recounted Sears’ plan to reclassify 60 percent of its sales staff as part time. Many of these workers would still put in 40 hours each week, but with “no substantial benefits” or “promotability.” This policy was “not intended as a service to provide the convenience of part-time work for women,” but “to keep Sears’ labor costs down.” These actions should matter to everyone, Ladky declared, because taxpayers were “subsidizing Sears’ low wages” through public assistance programs.
Women’s campaign against Sears convinced the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to name the corporation a high-priority target in 1974. Feminists were not unreasonable in their expectation of a settlement that would cost the company more than $100 million and transform the treatment of its workers.
But Sears never relented, instead stretching the fight into the longest trial in EEOC history. As the struggle entered the 1980s, a much more conservative EEOC headed by Republican Clarence Thomas rooted its case in statistics about where women applied and worked there. This tactic suited Sears well. The corporation responded that numerical evidence wrongly implied “male/female sameness with respect to preferences, interests, and qualifications.” Corporations could not be held responsible for women’s own choices, Sears argued.
Sears won its case in 1986 and never reformed the practices that have since spread across the service sector. When feminists first targeted Sears, the difference between salaried, flexible jobs and low-paying hourly jobs was the worker’s sex. But employers have widened the gap between these types of work and many white men have joined women and men of color at the bottom.
Sears’ poor treatment of its workers may have contributed to its own demise. In its quest to cut labor costs, Sears undermined its consumer base by depriving its workers of the income to shop there, not to mention loyalty. When price-cutting competitors like Walmart and Amazon came along, customers flocked to these new low-road retailers that “out-Seared” Sears itself.
While Sears’ warm retail culture and enticing catalog may evoke fond memories, it was also a fortress of discrimination and inequality. Mourn Sears if you must—but then let’s dismantle the world of work it helped build.