Sandra Day O'Connor

(WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s rights advocates are breathing a sigh of relief after the Supreme Court upheld on Monday the principle of affirmative action for racial minorities in admissions policies for the nation’s universities. The ruling, they said, upheld a principle that has helped women over the past 30 years.

“The ruling is extremely important for women,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, in Washington, D.C., andformer president of the National Organization for Women. “Without affirmative action, it would be much tougher for women in education, employment and contracting. We cannot forget that it wasn’t that long ago when women were the vast minority in professional schools.”

While the two cases dealt with the issue of race, women’s leaders say that they are important to women because women have directly benefited from affirmative action in employment, education, the military and government contracts.

Since the implementation of affirmative action programs in the military, education and employment programs over the past 30 years, women have made numerous quantifiable advances in the work place. The statistics posted on the National Council of Women’s Organizations Web site indicate that the proportion of female lawyers in the United States rose to 28 percent in 1998 from 5 percent in 1970. The comparable statistic for physicians was 41 percent in 1996, up sharply from 9 percent in 1970. In federal highway construction, women’s share of procurement dollars increased by 175 percent since 1987. Since the 1970s the presence of women in the U.S. armed forces has grown to 15 percent.

And the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 1983, women ages 25 to 34 accounted for 38 percent of the executive, managerial and administrative jobs. In 2000, women between those ages accounted for 51 percent of executive, managerial, and administrative jobs.

Women Still Segregated at Work

Through the use of affirmative-action programs, American society is just beginning to “bear the fruit for women and minorities,” said Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women in Washington, D.C. While saying the “decision means the educational system and the workforce will grow stronger,” she also pointed to gender gaps in the workplace that still need closing. “Much more needs to be done. There’s still segregation of women into ‘pink collar’ jobs like secretaries. These are low-paying, low-prestige and low-benefit jobs.”

The American Association of University Women described a chronic situation of “occupational segregation” in a report released in March. In “Women at Work,” the authors found that more than one-quarter of the U.S. female work force is concentrated in just 10 fields out of 500 occupations identified by the Census Bureau. The top-10 jobs for women include bookkeeping, nursing and teaching elementary school. The top-10 jobs for men include truck drivers, computer system analysts and carpenters. Roughly 21.5 percent of men are in these jobs, a lower concentration than that of women.

The Supreme Court Monday ruled 5-4 to uphold the use of race as a tool to increase diversity in admissions policies. Specifically, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court acknowledged that the University of Michigan’s Law School acted appropriately in considering race for admissions by also evaluating each candidate individually.

Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, “Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our Nation is essential if the dream of one Nation, indivisible, is to be realized.”

In a separate decision also regarding the University of Michigan, Gratz v. Bollinger, the court ruled against the university’s undergraduate specific admissions policy of ascribing numeric points for race as not being narrow enough. However, the court again did uphold in the undergraduate case the concept that race can be considered as an element in making admissions decisions. It is an affirmation of the law established in 1978 in the case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

“This ruling is a resounding victory for the goal of diversity and opening up educational opportunities,” said Wendy Weiser, staff attorney for the New York-based NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed a friend of the court brief supporting the University of Michigan. “This will preserve efforts to promote gender equality through affirmative action in areas where women really are underrepresented.”

Weiser says the decision “acknowledges the practical benefits of diversity in a global market place,” and that the Supreme Court’s decision underscores diversity’s “importance to the nation, to equality, to national standing and to the economy.”

Celebration Muted By Worries Over O’Connor’s Replacement

Amid the mood of celebration, however, women’s-rights groups are keeping a wary eye on the composition of the bench. Justice O’Connor, the swing vote in cases that upheld affirmative action, reproductive rights and family medical leave for men, is 73 and could resign from the Court as early as this summer.

Conservative justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy voted against affirmative action programs in both decisions and voted to uphold so-called “partial-birth abortion” ban that did not have an exception for the woman’s health. Thomas and Scalia are the two justices President Bush has held up as the model for his appointees to the Supreme Court.

“This decision illustrates how much judicial nominees matter, and why we need a fair and balanced judiciary,” Maatz said. “The President needs to nominate people who are reflective of the mainstream public.”

“We won,” agreed Feminist Majority’s Smeal, “but by the skin of our chins. We’ve got to get real here. We could lose everything.”

Jillian Jonas is a freelance journalist living in New York.

For more information:

American Association of University Women–
“Women at Work (2003)”:

National Council of Women’s Organizations–
Women Speak on Affirmative Action:

Supreme Court Strikes Down Sodomy Law

In a 6-3 decision yesterday, the Supreme Court voted to overturn a Texas law that banned “deviant sexual intercourse.” In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that gay people are “entitled to respect for their private lives” and that “the state cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.”

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer voted with Justice Kennedy.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cast her vote with the majority but issued a separate concurring opinion in which she wrote, “A law branding one class of persons as criminal solely based on the state’s moral disapproval of that class and the conduct associated with that class runs contrary to the values of the Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause, under any standard of review.”

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the dissent and took the unusual step of reading it aloud from the bench. “The court has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda,” he said, adding that he personally has “nothing against homosexuals.” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas joined the dissent.

The Supreme Court also voted 5-4 yesterday to issue a new ruling overturning its 1986 decision that affirmed a Georgia anti-sodomy law. The 1986 decision applied to both homosexual and heterosexual activities, but served to energize the gay rights movement in the United States. Together, the decisions will invalidate all anti-sodomy laws in the 13 states that still have them.