In the name of transparency and freedom of information, I need to state right now that I’m a pretty serious feminist. Not necessarily a feminist in the “burn your bra, misandry is great,” but certainly a young lady who believes that women should have autonomy and equality in every aspect of their lives. (Just don’t ask me about women and the draft—it’s a confusing moral conundrum that I admit I’m still trying to work through. I’ll get back to you once my own beliefs have solidified.) With that out of the way, I’d like to turn to today’s topic of discussion: Supreme Court cases that are important for someone interested, as I am, in women’s rights. This election cycle has brought to light many backwards and disturbing views about rape (here’s looking at you, Todd Akin), women’s sexuality (see: Sandra Fluke), and the ever-contentious debate over “a woman’s right to choose,” i.e. abortion. These issues dominated the rhetoric in earlier parts of the year, and with action ramping up on both sides of the “choice” argument, it seems that the Supreme Court might be ruling on the matter sooner than we think. Probably not in this year’s docket, but soon enough to merit some research into women’s rights jurisprudence.
The biggest women’s rights case of all is, of course, Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that made the “right to privacy” a right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. A woman’s choice regarding whether to have an abortion fell under the Court’s interpretation of a “right to privacy,” and as such certain types of abortions became legal. Since then, certain states have passed legislation to discourage abortions that involves measures such as cutting funding for abortion clinics and requiring invasive procedures such as transvaginal ultrasounds before an abortion takes place. There has been hearty opposition from both a moral, “pro-life” standpoint (does that mean pro-choice individuals are also pro-death? I’m certainly not…) and a judicial standpoint—many judicial scholars believe that a “right to privacy” cannot be read in any part of the constitution, and as such Roe should be overturned. However, at this time, some type of abortion is still an option in most states thanks to Roe.
There are other cases, though, all of which I strongly encourage you to explore in more depth. Griswold v. Connecticut is the 1965 landmark case that originally established the constitutional “right to privacy” and invalidated a Connecticut law that banned the use of contraceptives because that law violated a couple’s “right to marital privacy.” Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (decided 1986) held that sexual harassment in a workplace that creates a hostile work environment is classifiable as sex discriminiation under Title VII. United States v. Virginia was the famous Virginia Military Institute case from 1996 in which the Court ruled that VMI’s discriminatory admission policies (the school was all-male) violated women’s Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause rights, and the school was mandated to admit women or lose its government funding.
There are many more cases than the few I’ve listed here, and their summaries (and citations) can all be viewed at the ACLU’s interactive and comprehensive list of major women’s rights decisions. It’s important to brush up on cases besides Roe that often get overlooked, and now, when politicians seem to have moved on to other contentious issues, is the perfect time to do so. This way, when Rush Limbaugh makes another antifeminist comment in a few months, you’ll be prepared. Happy reading!