Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

10 Landmark Court Cases in Women’s Rights

By Nancy Farrell

On Tuesday March 29th, discussions began in the class-action lawsuit disputing the workplace policies of Wal-Mart, marking the start to what could be the largest Supreme Court case concerning women’s rights in decades. With six California women filing suit against the discount retail powerhouse, Wal-Mart faces some very serious gender inequality charges. As women’s rights issues come into the national spotlight once again, it is important to recognize the many milestones women’s rights activists have achieved throughout history and understand the many challenges still ahead. The following is a list of the 10 most significant Supreme Court cases dealing with women’s rights in the history of the United States.

  1. Muller v. Oregon (1908): While this Supreme Court case outcome was not exactly successful for women’s rights, it was a landmark case in the history of gender equality. Unanimously, the Supreme Court upheld an Oregon state law limiting women to working no more than ten hours a day (which was not the case for men). This ruling was negative in that it expressed an opinion of inequality between men and women. Claiming that the ruling was set in place to "protect" women, this result only upheld the patriarchal ideal that women are the lesser sex. However, Muller v. Oregon did ignite some positive consequences, beginning a widespread public discussion of women’s rights and gender equality.
  2. Roe v. Wade (1973): Now one of the most infamous Supreme Court cases in history, Rowe v. Wade struck down a Texas law restricting abortion. Texas had a law in place that made it a felony for a woman to get an abortion and the courts ruled that the state’s interest in protecting both the health of a pregnant woman and the potential life needed to be balanced against a woman’s right to privacy. The Roe v. Wade decision reshaped much of politics today and started the national debate over the morality of abortion.
  3. Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923): In this case, the Supreme Court held that a federal law establishing a minimum wage for women was unconstitutional. Although the states were still regulating the hours worked by women (as established in Muller v. Oregon case), the Supreme Courts ruled that regulating hours was different from regulating the wages women could make. As a result of the Adkins v. Children’s Hospital ruling, women have the same rights as men do when it comes to work wages. This case should hold an interesting place within the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Betty Dukes case that began this week.
  4. Griswold v. Connecticut (1965): One of the most important cases in women’s rights history, Griswold v. Connecticut dealt with a Connecticut state law banning the use of contraceptives. This landmark ruling established a right to privacy within a marriage, even though this was not explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution. Married women were granted the undeniable right to use contraceptives by the right to privacy. While this ruling did not address the question of use contraception outside of marriage, it was a step in the right direction for women’s rights.
  5. Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp. (1971): Title VII prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Supreme Court case Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp. marked the first sex discrimination case under Title VII. The Court unanimously ruled that employers could not refuse to hire women with pre-school aged children while hiring men with children of the same age.
  6. Reed v. Reed (1971): In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court struck down an Illinois law concerning sex discrimination within the appointment of administration over an estate. A couple that had separated lost their son who did not leave a will. The man and woman, Sally and Cecil Reed, were battling over control of their son’s estate. An Illinois law stated that "males must be preferred to females" when dealing with appointing estate administrators and so Cecil Reed was named administrator of the estate. This specification was found undeniably gender bias and the Court held that the law’s dissimilar treatment of men and women was unconstitutional.
  7. Eisenstadt v. Baird: While the Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut approached the issue of contraceptive use among married couples only, Eisenstadt v. Baird opposed a Massachusetts law banning the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried persons. With this case, a right to privacy was extended to individuals, married or single. This case extended the right announced in the Griswold v. Connecticut case to any procreative sexual intercourse. While this case was more focused on the equal rights of those who are married and those who are single, it intrinsically involves the rights of women and the own control over their personal lives.
  8. Pittsburgh Press Co. v. Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations (1937): This Supreme Court case dealt with First Amendment Issues of free speech and with sex discrimination issues. The Court ruled that a Pittsburgh ordinance that made it illegal to indicate a gender requirement in job postings was legally sound. The Pittsburgh Press printed job listings in three separate categories: "Jobs-Male Interest," "Jobs-Female Interest," and "Male-Female." These gender specifications were deemed unconstitutional by every court they were presented to.
  9. International Union, UAW v. Johnson Controls, Inc. (1991): Johnson Controls, Inc. had a policy that barred fertile women from obtaining jobs involving exposure to lead because of the potential harm inflicted to fetuses as a result of lead poisoning. However, the company did not have a similar policy in place for fertile men, even though it was known that lead exposure could have dangerous effects on the male reproductive system. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the company could not discriminate with job positions based on gender.
  10. United States v. Virginia (1996): The Supreme Court ruled 7-1 against the Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions policy. Virginia Military Institute (VMI) was the only public institution left in the United States with a male-only bias. In response to the gender debate, VMI offered a female-only parallel program at a separate location. This suggestion was shot down by the Court, claiming that the female-only program could not offer the same prestige, alumni connections, faculty, or military training as VMI. While a District Court initially ruled in the school’s favor, the Fourth Circuit ruled that VMI was in direct violation of the U. S. Constitution.