CRS Annotated Constitution
|Fourteenth Amendment -- Table of Contents||Prev | Next|
Sex.—Shortly after ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the refusal of Illinois to license a woman to practice law was challenged before the Supreme Court, and the Court rejected the challenge in tones which prevailed well into the twentieth century. “The civil law, as well as nature itself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. The constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood.”33 On the same premise, a statute restricting the franchise to men was sustained.34
The greater number of cases have involved legislation aimed to protect women from oppressive working conditions, as by prescrib[p.1876]ing maximum hours35 or minimum wages36 or by restricting some of the things women could be required to do.37 A 1961 decision upheld a state law which required jury service of men but which gave women the option of serving or not. “We cannot say that it is constitutionally impermissible for a State acting in pursuit of the general welfare, to conclude that a woman should be relieved from the civic duty of jury service unless she herself determines that such service is consistent with her own special responsibilities.”38 Another type of protective legislation for women that was sustained by the Court is that premised on protection of morals, as by forbidding the sale of liquor to women.39 In a highly controversial ruling, the Court sustained a state law which forbade the licensing of any female bartender, except for the wives or daughters of male owners. The Court purported to view the law as one for the protection of the health and morals of women generally, with the exception being justified by the consideration that such women would be under the eyes of a protective male.40
A wide variety of sex discriminations by governmental and private parties, including the protective labor legislation previously sustained, is now subjected to federal statutory proscription, banning, for instance, sex discrimination in employment and requiring equal pay for equal work.41 Some states have followed suit.42 [p.1877]While the proposed Equal Rights Amendment pended before the States and ultimately failed of ratification,43 the Supreme Court undertook a major evaluation of sex classification doctrine, first applying a “heightened” traditional standard of review (with bite) to void a discrimination and then, after coming within a vote of making sex a suspect classification, settling upon an intermediate standard. These standards continue, with some uncertainties of application and some tendencies among the Justices both to lessen and to increase the burden of governmental justification, to provide the analysis for evaluation of sex classifications.
In Reed v. Reed,44 the Court held invalid a state probate law which gave males preference over females when both were equally entitled to administer an estate. Because the statute “provides that different treatment be accorded to the applicants on the basis of their sex,” Chief Justice Burger wrote, “it thus establishes a classification subject to scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause.” The Court proceeded to hold that under traditional equal protection standards— requiring a classification to be reasonable and not arbitrarily related to a lawful objective—the classification made was an arbitrary way to achieve the objective the State advanced in defense of the law, that is, to reduce the area of controversy between otherwise equally qualified applicants for administration. Thus, the Court used traditional analysis but the holding seems to go somewhat further to say that not all lawful interests of a State may be advanced by a classification based solely on sex.45
It is now established that sex classifications, in order to withstand equal protection scrutiny, “must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives.”46 Thus, after several years in which sex dis[p.1878]tinctions were more often voided than sustained without a clear statement of the standard of review,47 a majority of the Court has arrived at the intermediate standard which many had thought it was applying in any event.48 The Court first examines the statutory or administrative scheme to determine if the purpose or objective is permissible and, if it is, whether it is important. Then, having ascertained the actual motivation of the classification, the Court engages in a balancing test to determine how well the classification serves the end and whether a less discriminatory one would serve that end without substantial loss to the government.49
Some sex distinctions were seen to be based solely upon “old notions,” no longer valid if ever they were, about the respective roles of the sexes in society, and those distinctions failed to survive even traditional scrutiny. Thus, a state law defining the age of majority as 18 for females and 21 for males, entitling the male child to support by his divorced father for three years longer than the female child, was deemed merely irrational, grounded as it was in the assumption of the male as the breadwinner, needing longer to prepare, and the female as suited for wife and mother.50 Similarly,[p.1879]a state jury system that in effect excluded almost all women was deemed to be based upon an overbroad generalization about the role of women as a class in society, and the administrative convenience served could not justify it.51
Supplement: [P. 1879, add to text after n.51:]
Even when the negative “stereotype” which is evoked is that of a stereotypical male, the Court has evaluated this as potential gender discrimination. In J.E.B. v. Alabama ex rel. T.B.,38 the Court addressed a paternity suit where men had been intentionally excluded from a jury through peremptory strikes. The Court rejected as unfounded the argument that men, as a class, would be more sympathetic to the defendant, the putative father. The Court also determined that gender–based exclusion of jurors would undermine the litigants’ interest by tainting the proceedings, and in addition would harm the wrongfully excluded juror.
Assumptions about the relative positions of the sexes, however, are not without some basis in fact, and sex may sometimes be a reliable proxy for the characteristic, such as need, with which it is the legislature’s actual intention to deal. But heightened scrutiny requires evidence of the existence of the distinguishing fact and its close correspondence with the condition for which sex stands as proxy. Thus, in the case which first expressly announced the intermediate scrutiny standard, the Court struck down a state statute that prohibited the sale of “non–intoxicating” 3.2 beer to males under 21 and to females under 18.52 Accepting the argument that traffic safety was an important governmental objective, the Court emphasized that sex is an often inaccurate proxy for other, more germane classifications. Taking the statistics offered by the State as of value, while cautioning that statistical analysis is a “dubious” business that is in tension with the “normative philosophy that underlies the Equal Protection Clause,” the Court thought the correlation between males and females arrested for drunk driving showed an unduly tenuous fit to allow the use of sex as a distinction.53
Invalidating an Alabama law imposing alimony obligations upon males but not upon females, the Court acknowledged that assisting needy spouses was a legitimate and important governmental objective and would then have turned to ascertaining whether sex was a sufficiently accurate proxy for dependency, so it could be said that the classification was substantially related to achievement of the objective.54 However, the Court observed that the State already conducted individualized hearings with respect to the need of the wife, so that with little additional burden needy males could be identified and helped. The use of the sex standard[p.1880]as a proxy, therefore, was not justified because it needlessly burdened needy men and advantaged financially secure women whose husbands were in need.55
Discrimination between unwed mothers and unwed fathers received different treatments through the Court’s perception of the justifications and presumptions underlying each. A New York law permitted the unwed mother but not the unwed father of an illegitimate child to block his adoption by withholding consent. Acting in the instance of one who acknowledged his parenthood and who had maintained a close relationship with his child over the years, the Court could discern no substantial relationship between the classification and some important state interest. Promotion of adoption of illegitimates and their consequent legitimation was important, but the assumption that all unwed fathers either stood in a different relationship to their children than did the unwed mother or that the difficulty of finding the fathers would unreasonably burden the adoption process was overbroad, as the facts of the case revealed. No barrier existed to the State dispensing with consent when the father or his location is unknown, but disqualification of all unwed fathers may not be used as a shorthand for that step.56 On the other hand, the Court sustained a Georgia statute which permitted the mother of an illegitimate child to sue for the wrongful death of the child but which allowed the father to sue only if he had legitimated the child and there is no mother.57 There was no opinion of the Court, but both opinions making up the result emphasized that the objective of the State, the avoidance of dif[p.1881]ficulties in proving paternity, was an important one which was advanced by the classification.58
As in the instance of illegitimacy classifications, the issue of sex qualifications for the receipt of governmental financial benefits has divided the Court and occasioned close distinctions. A statutory scheme under which a serviceman could claim his spouse as a “dependent” for allowances while a servicewoman’s spouse was not considered a “dependent” unless he was shown in fact to be dependent upon her for more than one half of his support was held an invalid dissimilar treatment of similarly situated men and women, not justified by the administrative convenience rationale.59 In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld,60 the Court struck down a Social Security provision that gave survivor’s benefits based on the insured’s earnings to the widow and minor children but gave such benefits only to the children and not to the widower of a deceased woman worker. Focusing not only upon the discrimination against the widower but primarily upon the discrimination visited upon the woman worker whose earnings did not provide the same support for her family that a male worker’s did, the Court saw the basis for the distinction resting upon the generalization that a woman would stay home and take care of the children while a man would not. Since the Court perceived the purpose of the provision to be to enable the surviving parent to choose to remain at home to care for minor children, the sex classification ill fitted the end and was invidiously discriminatory.
But when in Califano v. Goldfarb61 the Court was confronted with a Social Security provision structured much as the benefit sections struck down in Frontiero and Wiesenfeld, even in the light of an express heightened scrutiny, no majority of the Court could be[p.1882]obtained for the reason for striking down the statute. The section provided that a widow was entitled to receive survivors’ benefits based on the earnings of her deceased husband, regardless of dependency, but payments were to go to the widower of a deceased wife only upon proof that he had been receiving at least half of his support from her. The plurality opinion treated the discrimination as consisting of disparate treatment of women wage–earners whose tax payments did not earn the same family protection as male wage earners’ taxes. Looking to the purpose of the benefits provision, the plurality perceived it to be protection of the familial unit rather than of the individual widow or widower and to be keyed to dependency rather than need. The sex classification was thus found to be based on an assumption of female dependency which ill–served the purpose of the statute and was an ill–chosen proxy for the underlying qualification. Administrative convenience could not justify use of such a questionable proxy.62 Justice Stevens, concurring, accepted most of the analysis of the dissent but nonetheless came to the conclusion of invalidity. His argument was essentially that while either administrative convenience or a desire to remedy discrimination against female spouses could justify use of a sex classification, neither purpose was served by the sex classification actually used in this statute.63
Again, the Court divided closely when it sustained two instances of classifications claimed to constitute sex discrimination. In Rostker v. Goldberg,64 rejecting presidential recommendations, Congress provided for registration only of males for a possible future military draft, excluding women altogether. The Court discussed but did not explicitly choose among proffered equal protection standards, but it apparently applied the intermediate test of Craig v. Boren. However, it did so in the context of its often–stated[p.1883]preference for extreme deference to military decisions and to congressional resolution of military decisions. Evaluating the congressional determination, the Court found that it has not been “unthinking” or “reflexively” based upon traditional notions of the differences between men and women; rather, Congress had extensively deliberated over its decision. It had found, the Court asserted, that the purpose of registration was the creation of a pool from which to draw combat troops when needed, an important and indeed compelling governmental interest, and the exclusion of women was not only “sufficiently but closely” related to that purpose because they were ill–suited for combat, could be excluded from combat, and registering them would be too burdensome to the military system.65
In Michael M. v. Superior Court,66 the Court did expressly adopt the Craig v. Boren intermediate standard, but its application of the test appeared to represent a departure in several respects from prior cases in which it had struck down sex classifications. Michael M. involved the constitutionality of a statute that punished males, but not females, for having sexual intercourse with a nonspousal person under 18 years of age. The plurality and the concurrence generally agreed, but with some difference of emphasis, that while the law was founded on a clear sex distinction it was justified because it did serve an important governmental interest, the prevention of teenage pregnancies. Inasmuch as women may become pregnant and men may not, women would be better deterred by that biological fact, and men needed the additional legal deterrence of a criminal penalty. Thus, the law recognized that for purposes of this classification men and women were not similarly situated, and the statute did not deny equal protection.67
Cases of “benign” discrimination, that is, statutory classifications that benefit women and disadvantage men in order to overcome the effects of past societal discrimination against women,[p.1884]have presented the Court with some difficulty. Although the first two cases were reviewed under apparently traditional rational basis scrutiny, the more recent cases appear to subject these classifications to the same intermediate standard as any other sex classification. Kahn v. Shevin68 upheld a state property tax exemption allowing widows but not widowers a $500 exemption. In justification, the State had presented extensive statistical data showing the substantial economic and employment disabilities of women in relation to men. The provision, the Court found, was “reasonably designed to further the state policy of cushioning the financial impact of spousal loss upon the sex for whom that loss imposes a disproportionately heavy burden.”69 And in Schlesinger v. Ballard,70 the Court sustained a provision requiring the mandatory discharge from the Navy of a male officer who has twice failed of promotion to certain levels, which in Ballard’s case meant discharge after nine years of service, whereas women officers were entitled to 13 years of service before mandatory discharge for want of promotion. The difference was held to be a rational recognition of the fact that male and female officers were dissimilarly situated and that women had far fewer promotional opportunities than men had.
Although in each of these cases the Court accepted the proffered justification of remedial purpose without searching inquiry, later cases caution that “the mere recitation of a benign, compensatory purpose is not an automatic shield which protects against any inquiry into the actual purposes underlying a statutory scheme.”71 Rather, after specifically citing the heightened scrutiny that all sex classifications are subjected to, the Court looks to the statute and to its legislative history to ascertain that the scheme does not actually penalize women, that it was actually enacted to compensate for past discrimination, and that it does not reflect merely “archaic and overbroad generalizations” about women in its moving force. But where a statute is “deliberately enacted to compensate for particular economic disabilities suffered by women,” it[p.1885]serves an important governmental objective and will be sustained if it is substantially related to achievement of that objective.72
Many of these lines of cases converged in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan,73 in which the Court stiffened and applied its standards for evaluating claimed benign distinctions benefiting women and additionally appeared to apply the intermediate standard itself more strictly. The case involved a male nurse who wished to attend a female– only nursing school located in the city in which he lived and worked; if he could not attend this particular school he would have had to commute 147 miles to another nursing school which did accept men, and he would have had difficulty doing so and retaining his job. The State defended on the basis that the female–only policy was justified as providing “educational affirmative action for females.” Recitation of a benign purpose, the Court said, was not alone sufficient. “[A] State can evoke a compensatory purpose to justify an otherwise discriminatory classification only if members of the gender benefited by the classification actually suffer a disadvantage related to the classification.”74 But women did not lack opportunities to obtain training in nursing; instead they dominated the field. In the Court’s view, the state policy did not compensate for discriminatory barriers facing women, but it perpetuated the stereotype of nursing as a woman’s job. “[A]lthough the State recited a ‘benign, compensatory purpose,’ it failed to establish that the alleged objective is the actual purpose underlying the discriminatory classification.”75 Even if the classification was premised on the proffered basis, the Court concluded, it did not substantially and directly relate to the objective, because the school permitted men to audit the nursing classes and women could still be adversely affected by the presence of men.76
Supplement: [P. 1885, add to text after n.76:]
In a 1996 case, the Court required that a State demonstrate “exceedingly persuasive justification” for gender discrimination. When a female applicant challenged the exclusion of women from the historically male–only Virginia Military Institute (VMI), the State of Virginia defended the exclusion of females as essential to the nature of training at the military school.39 The State argued that the VMI program, which included rigorous physical training, deprivation of personal privacy, and an “adversative model” that featured minute regulation of behavior, would need to be unacceptably modified to facilitate the admission of women. While recognizing that women’s admission would require accommodation such as different housing assignments and physical training programs, the Court found that the reasons set forth by the State were not “exceedingly persuasive,” and thus the State did not meet its burden of justification. The Court also rejected the argument that a parallel program established by the State at a private women’s college served as an adequate substitute, finding that the program lacked the military–style structure found at VMI, and that it did not equal VMI in faculty, facilities, prestige, or alumni network.
Another area presenting some difficulty is that of the relationship of pregnancy classifications to gender discrimination. In Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFluer,77 a case decided upon due process grounds, two school systems requiring pregnant school teachers to leave work four and five months respectively before the expected childbirths were found to have acted arbitrarily and irrationally in establishing rules not supported by anything more weighty than administrative convenience buttressed with some possible embarrassment of the school boards in the face of pregnancy. On the other hand, the exclusion of pregnancy from a state financed program of payments to persons disabled from employment was upheld against equal protection attack as supportable by legitimate state interests in the maintenance of a self–sustaining program with rates low enough to permit the participation of low–income workers at affordable levels.78 The absence of supportable reasons in one case and their presence in the other may well have made the significant difference.
Supplement: [P. 1881, add to n.58:]
See also Miller v. Albright, 523 U.S. 420 (1998) (opinion by Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Rehnquist) (equal protection not violated where paternity of a child of a citizen mother is established at birth, but child of citizen father must establish paternity by age 18).
|Fourteenth Amendment -- Table of Contents||Prev | Next|