Women Harnessing the Law

Happy Women’s History Month! Throughout this country’s history, the law hasn’t been consistently fair across gender lines, classifying women as second-class citizens and making assumptions about people based on gender stereotypes. But throughout that same history, women have harnessed the law to right these wrongs, changing the national conversation around issues as varied as medical privacy, marriage, caring for family members, and sexual harassment.

Let’s meet some of these trailblazers now!

Estelle Griswold

Estelle Griswold, left, and Cornelia Jahncke, of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, celebrate their Supreme Court victory.

The birth control pill came onto the market in 1960, but in Connecticut, contraception was outright banned by a law that predated the birth of the Pill by more than 80 years, imposing fines and jail time on people using any type of contraceptive device. Additionally, anyone “aiding and abetting” would-be birth-control users — including doctors and pharmacists — could be punished.

In 1961, in an act of civil disobedience, Estelle Griswold, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, opened a birth control clinic — and was promptly arrested, prosecuted, and fined $100. Griswold immediately challenged the constitutionality of Connecticut’s anti-contraception law, but it was upheld in state courts. In 1965, however, the Supreme Court ruled that married couples had a constitutional right to make private decisions about contraception.

Griswold v. Connecticut was a landmark case in contraception access — but it was only a first step. In restricting its ruling to married couples, the Supreme Court perpetuated the idea that birth control was only appropriate within the confines of marriage. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Supreme Court ruled that unmarried people, too, had a right to birth control.

Mildred Loving

Richard and Mildred Loving

Bettmann/Corbis via New York Times

Richard Loving was white and Mildred Jeter was black. In 1958, the couple obtained a marriage certificate in Washington D.C., and were jailed for violating Virginia code 20-54, which prohibited marriages between “white and colored persons,” and code 20-58, which prohibited couples from marrying out of state and returning to Virginia to reside as husband and wife.

The Lovings pleaded guilty and were banished from the state, forcing the couple to leave their families and home behind. A series of court battles culminated in the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1967 decision that Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage violated the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause.

Before her death in 2008, Mildred Loving expressed hope that Loving v. Virginia would provide a legal basis for same-sex marriage, proclaiming, “I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1977. Photo: Lynn Gilbert

As dramatized in the recent RBG biopic, On the Basis of Sex, future Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg got her start when she represented Charles Moritz in a case against the Internal Revenue Service. Moritz’s problems started when he took a tax deduction for elder care, which was available to women and divorced men, but not to men like Moritz who had never been married — a reflection of the idea that women are homemakers and caregivers rather than wage-earners. Ginsburg successfully argued that the distinction was irrational and discriminatory, and Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue marked the first time Ginsburg wrote a legal brief on gender discrimination.

One of Ginsburg’s next cases also involved a male client fighting for a federal benefit that was exclusive to women. Stephen Wiesenfeld married Paula Polatschek in 1970, and her salary was their principal source of income. But a healthy pregnancy quickly turned into tragedy when Paula died in labor, leaving Stephen as the sole provider for their baby. He applied for Social Security benefits, but was informed that only his son could receive them — as a widower, he could not. Ginsburg saw two levels of discrimination: against women, whose Social Security deductions didn’t reap the same payouts to their surviving family members; and against men, who would be eligible beneficiaries if not for their sex. In 1975, Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court, which issued a unanimous decision in her favor.

Emboldened by her first victory with Moritz, Ginsburg founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project to fight for gender equality for both women and men. In the cases highlighted here, Ginsburg used male plaintiffs to challenge laws that were based on antiquated ideas of gender roles. As she explained it, “Our strategy was the soul of simplicity. It was to go after the stereotypes that were written into law and to show that many could be disadvantaged by the stereotype, as well as women. We wanted people to be judged by what they do, by the functions they perform, and not by gender.”

Mechelle Vinson

Photo: Karl Schumacher/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

In 1974, when she was only 19 years old, Mechelle Vinson became a bank teller. Vinson’s manager, a married father of seven named Sidney Taylor, soon started pressuring her for sex. Taylor’s propositions and unwelcome advances continued over a prolonged period of difficult and stressful circumstances related to his coercive behavior. For years, she endured harassment, fondling, and repeated sexual assaults, all under threat of being fired if she did not comply. She estimates they had sexual intercourse 40 to 50 times — encounters that were never consensual.

In 1978, Vinson brought suit against the company, leading to a landmark decision in sexual harassment law in 1986, when the Supreme Court established that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act covered not only discrimination that results in economic injury but also “the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women” in the workplace, including “psychological aspects of the workplace environment.” Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson was the first successful use of Title VII in a sexual harassment case in the Supreme Court, and it helped start the conversation about sexual harassment that Anita Hill would blow wide open just a few years later.

In the wake of her victory, Vinson told the Washington Post she was surprised by the decision — and the response she received from the public. “I’ve had a lot of women come up and say they’ve been harassed but just didn’t have the guts to stand up,” she said. “One girl, 20 years old, came up and kissed me. She said she’d been abused but she didn’t know what to do.”