Landmark Supreme Court Cases in Women's Rights

Learn about the history of women's rights in the United States as you review these landmark Supreme Court cases.
9 |
10 |
11 |
by Shmuel Ross

Muller v. Oregon (1908)

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court upheld an Oregon state law limiting women to working no more than ten hours a day. Three years earlier, in Lochner v. New York, the Court had ruled that a state could not restrict the working hours of men, on the grounds that doing so would infringe on their right as workers to make their own working arrangements with employers. In this case, it held that this right was outweighed by the state's interest in protecting women.

The case featured what is now known as the "Brandeis brief," written to support Oregon's case by future justice Louis Brandeis. It contained 2 pages discussing legal issues, and 110 pages of data providing evidence that long working hours had negative effects on the "health, safety, morals, and general welfare of women." This was the first time such data had been used in a Supreme Court case to demonstrate a reasonable basis for a state law.

Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923)

In a 5-3 decision, the Court struck down a federal law establishing a minimum wage for women in Washington, D.C. While the Court continued to hold that states could regulate the amount of time worked by women, they held that this was different from regulating the wages they could make. In the latter regard, they were held to have the right to make any arrangements they pleased, just like men.

This case pitted opposing groups of women's rights activists against one another, with one side fighting for women to receive increased protection, and the other wanting women to be on an equal footing with men.

West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937)

In a 5-4 decision, the Court overturned Adkins v. Children's Hospital, upholding a Washington state law which established minimum wages for women and minors.

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)

In a 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court struck down 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. In his majority opinion, Justice William O. Douglas stated that the existing amendments established a "zone of privacy" protecting citizens against government intrusion, and that this covered "the right to marital privacy." This, the Court contended, included the right of married couples to obtain and use birth control. (This ruling did not address the question of contraception outside of marriage.)

Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp. (1971)

In a per curiam decision, the Court ruled that employers could not refuse to hire women with pre-school children while hiring men with such children.

Reed v. Reed (1971)

In a 7-0 decision, the Court struck down an Illinois law giving preference to a male seeking to administrate an estate over an equally entitled female. This case concerned a set of separated parents whose adopted son had died without a will. Both sought to administrate the deceased's estate; following the law, a lower court had placed the father in charge. The Supreme Court ruled that men and women could be treated differently only when there was some reasonable and relevant cause for doing so; while the Illinois law simplified judicial proceedings, arbitrarily giving preference to men over women was "to make the very kind of arbitrary legislative choice forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."

Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972)

In a 6-1 ruling, the Court struck down a Massachusetts law banning the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried persons. The right to privacy established in Griswold v. Connecticut was now established as extending to individuals, married or single, rather than existing only between partners in a marriage.

Pittsburgh Press Co. v. Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations (1973)

Voting 5-4, the Court upheld a Pittsburgh ordinance making it illegal to indicate a gender requirement in most job postings. The Pittsburgh Press newspaper had "help wanted" listings in three columns: "Jobs—Male Interest," "Jobs—Female Interest," and "Male-Female." A lower court held that this violated Pittsburgh law, and the newspaper appealed on First Amendment grounds, claiming that this law violated the freedom of the press. The Supreme Court ruled that as the ads were commercial speech, and especially as the discrimination itself was illegal, free speech rules did not apply to them or to their classification by the newspaper.

Roe v. Wade (1973)

In a 7-2 decision, the Court struck down a Texas law restricting abortion. It ruled that a state's interest in protecting both the health of a pregnant woman and potential human life needed to be balanced against a woman's right to privacy, which was now extended to cover a "qualified right to terminate her pregnancy." The Court established a shifting balance over the course of the pregnancy: in the first trimester, the medical judgment of the woman's physician could not be restricted by the state; in the stage between that trimester and the viability of the fetus, the state might "regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health"; after viability—taken as being the start of the third trimester—the state's interest in potential human life allowed it to "regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother."

Doe v. Bolton (1973)

The 7-2 majority that established Roe v. Wade overturned Georgia's abortion law on the same day. Among the law's restrictions were the requirements that the abortion take place in an accredited hospital, that patient obtain the approval of three physicians and the hospital's abortion committee, and that the patient be a resident of Georgia. These restrictions were found to infringe upon the rights of the patient and those of her primary physician.

Harris v. McRae (1980)

In a 5-4 ruling, the Court upheld a law barring the use of Medicaid funds for abortions, except in specific cases. The Hyde Amendment allowed the funding of abortions in cases when the mother's life was in danger, and in cases of rape or incest. The Court held that a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy did not entitle her to receive government funding for that choice.

International Union, UAW v. Johnson Controls, Inc. (1991)

In a unanimous 9-0 ruling, the Court held that a battery manufacturer could not bar fertile women from jobs involving exposure to lead, despite the potential for fetuses being harmed by lead poisoning. It found that this was a case of sex discrimination, as no similar policy was in place for fertile men, despite the potential for dangerous effects on the male reproductive system. Furthermore, child-bearing concerns were irrelevant to employees' abilities to carry out the functions of their jobs, which would be the only legitimate reason for discrimination.

Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989)

Voting 5-4, the Court upheld several restrictions placed on abortion in Missouri. It found that the state could prohibit the use of state employees or facilities for abortions not necessary to save the mother's life; prohibit the use of public funds, employees, or facilities to encourage or counsel a woman have an abortion for non-life-saving purposes; and require physicians to perform a test to see whether a fetus is viable, if they have reason to believe that the mother is at least 20 weeks pregnant. The first two were found to be essentially the same as the restrictions on public funding upheld in Harris v. McRae, while the viability test was found not to be in violation of Roe.

Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992)

In a 5-4 decision, the Court upheld several Pennsylvanian abortion restrictions, while striking down the requirement for notifying husbands. It held that it was legal to require doctors to provide women with information on the potential risks associate with abortions at least 24 hours before the procedure was performed, and to require a minor seeking an abortion to obtain either the consent of one of her parents or a judicial bypass. Under the Pennsylvania law, these requirements did not apply in cases of a "medical emergency." The plurality opinion, written by Sandra Day O'Connor, rejected the rigid trimester distinctions of Roe in which a state's interest in potential life could not be the basis for regulation until the third trimester. Instead, it held that regulations on abortion could not impose an "undue burden," which, in this case, applied only to spousal notification.

United States v. Virginia (1996)

The court ruled 7-1 to strike down the Virginia Military Institute's (VMI) male-only admissions policy. All VMI students are militatry cadets; it was the last male-only public institution in the United States. The United States sued VMI, arguing that their admissions policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The District Court ruled in VMI's favor, but the Fourth Circuit ruled that VMI was in violation of the Constitution. In response, VMI offered to create a female-only parallel program based at Mary Baldwin College, a nearby private liberal arts school for women. But in her majority opinion for the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that the proposed all-female program could not offer the same prestige, alumni connections, faculty, or military training as VMI—therefore the proposed program was unconstitutional and VMI had to begin admitting women.

Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber, Inc. (2007)

The Court ruled 5 to 4 against the complaint filed by Lilly Ledbetter, the lone female supervisor at a tire plant in Gadsden, Ala., who alleged that she was paid 15%-40% less than her male counterparts, which was proved to be accurate. In explanation, the Court cited a too-long delay between the first acts of gender-based pay discrimination and the lawsuit. As a direct result of this decision, in 2009, President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which allows victims of pay discrimination to file a complaint with the government against their employer within 180 days of their last paycheck. Previously, victims (most often women) were only allowed 180 days from the date of the first unfair paycheck, per Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Provided by Infoplease—an authoritative, comprehensive reference website that offers an encyclopedia, a dictionary, an atlas, and several almanacs. Visit to find more resources endorsed by teachers and librarians.
loading gif