The Legal Classification of Men and Women


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Usually sex classifications were challenged by women who felt they deprived of equal legal treatment, but they were also challenged by men who felt women were given unfair legal protection. Originally, most of the gender specific legislation in the United States was passed because stereotypes regarding women pervaded the mentalities of many of our nation's lawmakers. Slowly the government realized that women had been sealed into the domestic sphere and attempted to reverse this discrimination by giving women special compensations. In some instances the treatment women received was leftover from old notions of role typing, while in others, laws directly tried to remedy harmful effects of the past. In both cases, men claimed their equal protection rights were violated by laws which separated women from men.

In Stanley v. Illinois 1972, Peter Stanley challenged an Illinois statute which "automatically conferred custody on a married father and on a mother, married or unmarried, and automatically denied it to an unmarried father" after the death of a parent (Goldstein 196). Stanley claimed that his equal protection right, protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, was violated because other parents who were similarly situated, that is, women and married men, were given a benefit which he was denied. A constitutional law must demonstrate a clear goal of the state, and represent the "least restrictive means to achieve those ends" (Mezey 16). In this case, however, the Supreme Court observed "that the State registers no gain towards its goals when it separates children from the custody of fit parents" (Goldstein 199). Clearly this law is a remnant of the past when women were thought to be the only caretakers of children. The underlying motive for this law was "the theory that an unwed father is not a "parent" whose existing relationship with his children must be considered" (Goldstein 198). While it is common for the state to defend their stereotypical legal relics on the grounds of "administrative convenience," the Court now identifies these laws as problematic (Reed v. Reed 1971, Frontiero v. Richardson 1973). "Procedure by assumption is always cheaper and easier than individual determination(,) but when the procedure... explicitly disdains present realities in deference to past formalities... it cannot stand" (Goldstein 200). Thus, the Illinois law which automatically awarded women the custody of their children, but not similarly situated men, was declared unconstitutional, because it was grounded in outdated stereotypes.

Leon Goldfarb, in Calfifano v.

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Goldfarb 1977, protested "those parts of the Social Security Act which made him ineligible for old-age survivors benefits from his deceased wife's social security payments" (Goldstein 179). The issue in this case was whether it was constitutional to assume that females were economically dependant upon their husbands, and thus refuse social security benefits to men who were assumed to be nondependant. "Congress might have reasonably concluded that it would be both cheaper and easier simply conclusively to presume that wives of male members are financially dependant on their husbands" (Goldstein 181). However, the Judgement of the Court announced that "this statutory scheme discriminated against female wage earners because it gave them less protection for their families than male wage earners" (Goldstein 180) Again, the part of the Social Security Act in question, was ruled unconstitutional because it was the "accidental byproduct of a traditional way of thinking about females" (Goldstein 186). Although the Act was harmful towards men, it was based upon the outdated stereotype which said women were not, or could not be the dominant wage earner in their family.

In Califano v. Webster 1977, Webster challenged another part of the Social Security Act "which permitted women to calculate their "average" monthly earnings by a more generous averaging technique than that granted to men" (Goldstein 192,3). The issue in this case was different than that in both previous cases, in that the challenged statute here was not the result of stereotypical thinking about women, but rather it "operated directly to compensate women for past discrimination" (Goldstein 193). The Court found that there was indeed reason for the State to make gender distinctions of this sort. "Reduction of the disparity in economic condition between men and women caused by the long history of discrimination against women has been recognized as such an important government objective" (Goldstein 193). Therefore, in cases like this, gender classifications are not the result of outdated stereotypes, but the conscious effort of society to improve the conditions of certain under- privileged groups.

The three cases presented here show different ways and reasons the law has classified men and women. When a statute is based upon stereotypes it usually does not have a legitimate governmental goal and the Court declares it unconstitutional. However, the Court characterizes sex as a semisuspect classification which requires heightened, not strict, scrutiny (Mezey Table 1.1 p. 20). This enables the Court to decide whether there can also be a legitimate reason to make a gender classifications. Califano v. Webster is proof that sex classifications can serve a just purpose. These three cases have indeed advanced the cause of gender equality, because they dispelled "overbroad generalizations" where they were present, but held their ground where gender distinctions were necessary to further the cause of equality.


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