“Equal: Women Reshape American Law”

IMG_0287Until the late 1960’s law schools were almost exclusively a bastion of white, male students.  By the late 1960’s, law schools saw themselves with empty seats when, during the Vietnam War, male students lost their selective service deferments, were drafted, and unable to enroll in or finish their legal studies. Unwilling to accept the lost enrollment dollars, In Equal: Women Reshape American Law, Fred Strebeigh opines that the very schools that had rigidly limited enrollment to white males in the past, began to enroll women and people of color to fill those empty seats.[1]

Strebeigh tells the story of how a rapidly increasing cadre of women, on completing their legal educations, found that they were not welcome  in the profession for which they had prepared.  Law firms, law schools and the courts did not want to hire them, regardless of the strength of their academic credentials.  He describes the willingness of these talented women to challenge the institutions and laws that perpetuated discrimination against them.  But the strength of Equal is based, primarily, on the story of the dedication of women, and often their male allies, to search out cases to litigate that would, systematically, rely on the language of the U.S. Constitutional to break down the barriers to full equality between the sexes.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, women made up 47% of law students, 35 % of the law faculty, 30 % membership in the American Bar Association, 23 % of federal judgeships. But it is not just the number of students, it is also the impact of the litigation by this new generation of lawyers that is the core of this book.  Strebeigh tells story after story of the people behind the most significant cases of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  He describes the impact of sex discrimination on individual men and women. He explores the inability of women to obtain scholarships to pursue their legal studies, the inability of an Army nurse to continue her military career after becoming pregnant, giving birth and giving her child up for adoption.  He describes discrimination against males in the receipt-or inability to receive–government benefits available to women.  He describes violence perpetrated against women, including rape and other sexual harassment, in circumstances in which employers, universities or the courts refused to hold their male abusers accountable.

Last month I wrote about the struggles endured by women leaders who led the fight for the Nineteenth Amendment, ie. the right to vote.  Their struggle made possible the successes of the more recent past.  Strebeigh repeatedly returns to the stories of the 19th century to explain the history that had to be overcome for the equality of the sexes to come to fruition.

A special hero in Strebeigh’s book is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  After graduating from Columbia Law School [2] she served on the faculty of Rutgers Law School from 1972 until 1980 and the faculty of Columbia Law School.  During her academic career she became deeply involved in researching and litigating on behalf of victim’s of sex discrimination, both male and female.  Highlights of her career as an advocate are Supreme Court cases that extended the protections available to women, and eliminating barriers to equal treatment on the basis of sex.  She researched and argued before the Supreme Court: Reed v. Reed, [3] Frontiero v. Richardson, [4] Weiberger v. Wiesenfeld [5] and Duren v. Missouri. [6]  

Equal begins in 1967-68, and continues into the beginning of the 21st century.   Strebeigh tells is the story of the impact of women at a national level.  He describes successes as well as failures in the period of his studies.  It is, in some fundamental ways, the story of my generation of women attorneys.  The story of Meg’s generation, what I call the Title IX generation, remains to unfold.

[1] Enrollment by African-Americans and other people of color also slowly began to increase.  However the opportunities and challenges of these groups are covered in other books and only briefly mentioned in Equal. 

[2]  Justice Ginsberg began her legal education at Harvard Law School.  In 1960 she graduated from Columbia Law School where she tied for first place in her class. She served on the law reviews of both schools.  Despite being denied a position as Law Clerk to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter due to her sex, she excelled in every future aspect of her career.  While at Rutgers she became deeply involved in the women’s rights movement.  She co-founded ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, and served as ACLU’s General Counsel before being first appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980 and thereafter moving to the Supreme Court in 1993.

[3]  In 1971 the Supreme Court held in Reed v. Reed that Idaho’s law that case mandatory preference to males in selecting administrators for probate estates was in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourth Amendment. 

[4]  In 1973  the Supreme Court held in Frontiero v. Richardson that  the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibited discrimination between men and women in distributing military benefits to dependent family members.

[5]  In 1975 the Supreme Court held in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld that gender based distinctions under 42 U.S.C. 402(g) gender-based distinction in the distribution of special child care benefits violated the right to equal protection under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

[6]  In 1979 the Supreme Court held in Duren v. Missouri that Missouri’s statute making jury service optional for women violated a criminal defendant’s right to a fair cross-section requirement of the Sixth Amendment.


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