Amdt14.S1.5.3.6 Facially Non-Neutral Laws that Benefit Women

Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

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, 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. Shevin1 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.” 2 And, in Schlesinger v. Ballard,3 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.” 4 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 serves an important governmental objective and will be sustained if it is substantially related to achievement of that objective.5

Many of these lines of cases converged in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan,6 in which the Court stiffened and applied its standards for evaluating claimed benign distinctions benefitting 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 that 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 benefitted by the classification actually suffer a disadvantage related to the classification.” 7 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.” 8 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.9

416 U.S. 351 (1974). back
416 U.S. at 355. back
419 U.S. 498 (1975). back
Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636, 648 (1975); Califano v. Goldfarb, 430 U.S. 199, 209 n.8 (1977); Orr v. Orr, 440 U.S. 268, 280–82 (1979); Wengler v. Druggists Mutual Ins. Co., 446 U.S. 142, 150–52 (1980). In light of the stiffened standard, Justice Stevens has called for overruling Kahn, Califano v. Goldfarb, 430 U.S. at 223–24, but Justice Blackmun would preserve that case. Orr v. Orr, 440 U.S. at 284. Cf. Regents of the Univ. of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 302–03 (1978) (Justice Powell; less stringent standard of review for benign sex classifications). back
Califano v. Webster, 430 U.S. 313, 316–18, 320 (1977). There was no doubt that the provision sustained in Webster had been adopted expressly to relieve past societal discrimination. The four Goldfarb dissenters concurred specially, finding no difference between the two provisions. Id. at 321. back
458 U.S. 718 (1982). back
458 U.S. at 728. back
458 U.S. at 730. In addition to obligating the state to show that in fact there was existing discrimination or effects from past discrimination, the Court also appeared to take the substantial step of requiring the state “to establish that the legislature intended the single-sex policy to compensate for any perceived discrimination.” Id. at 730 n.16. A requirement that the proffered purpose be the actual one and that it must be shown that the legislature actually had that purpose in mind would be a notable stiffening of equal protection standards. back
In the major dissent, Justice Powell argued that only a rational basis standard ought to be applied to sex classifications that would “expand women’s choices,” but that the exclusion here satisfied intermediate review because it promoted diversity of educational opportunity and was premised on the belief that single-sex colleges offer “distinctive benefits” to society. Id. at 735, 740 (emphasis by Justice), 743. The Court noted that, because the state maintained no other single-sex public university or college, the case did not present “the question of whether States can provide ‘separate but equal’ undergraduate institutions for males and females,” id. at 720 n.1, although Justice Powell thought the decision did preclude such institutions. Id. at 742–44. See Vorchheimer v. School Dist. of Philadelphia, 532 F. 2d 880 (3d Cir. 1976) (finding no equal protection violation in maintenance of two single-sex high schools of equal educational offerings, one for males, one for females), aff’d by an equally divided Court, 430 U.S. 703 (1977) (Justice Rehnquist not participating). back