ACLU History: Continuing the Legacy: Ending Gender Discrimination in Employment and Education

After Ginsburg's departure in 1980, the ACLU Women's Rights Project (WRP) continued to evolve. Its emphasis broadened from Equal Protection litigation, which was a central focus for Ginsburg, to include more extensive efforts to secure the rights promised women by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and other antidiscrimination statutes.

In case after case, the ACLU defended women's right to work while pregnant, to work in traditionally male jobs, to receive unemployment benefits, to be free from sexual harassment in the workplace and at school, to have equal access to educational opportunities – and countless other rights that, taken together, are necessary for full equality.

Throughout much of the 1980s, WRP fought discrimination based on employers' assertions that women of childbearing age should be barred from workplaces that could pose a health hazard to a fetus should a woman worker become pregnant. One lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court was U.A.W. v. Johnson Controls, in which the ACLU participated as amicus. The ACLU argued that the solution to workplace hazards wasn't to eliminate pregnant (or all) women workers, but rather to eliminate the hazards they and their male co-workers faced. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that Title VII prohibits employers from excluding women from jobs that might expose them to hazardous substances.

Another Supreme Court case that drew national attention in the 1990s was the legal battle over the all-male admission policy of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), in which the ACLU participated as amicus and advisor. VMI, a state-supported military college, defended its exclusionary admissions by arguing that women generally would not succeed in the school's competitive, adversarial environment and would prefer the education at a women's leadership academy at another Virginia college that focused more on cooperative learning strategies. Fittingly, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993) authored the 1996 opinion in United States v. Virginia that rejected this argument, holding that sex-based classifications could not be justified by 'generalizations about 'the way women are'' or 'estimates of what is appropriate for most women.' Such assumptions, the Court held, 'no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.'


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