The ideological distinctions between sex and race discrimination as found in selected Supreme Court cases and briefs of counsel

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


The purpose of this study was to compare the underlying rationales found in selected Supreme Court cases and briefs of counsel justifying or condemning legal classification by sex and legal classification by race. Political strategies have been developed based on the assumption that racism and sexism are analogous. Yet, in recent years, anti-discrimination law, when used in sex discrimination cases, often has been interpreted and implemented quite differently from cases involving race discrimination. This study, using a content analysis based on "grounded theory," compared per- ceptions of racism and sexism as found in the opinions and briefs of counsel of the United States Supreme Court.

The data showed that until the 1970's women were seen as wives and mothers whose place was in the home. Women were perceived as having certain inherent characteristics which made them more vulnerable than men. Special laws for women, therefore, were perceived as justified. On the other hand, there were those who argued equity for women based on fundamental ideals and the notion that women should be seen as individuals, not as a stereotypical composite of womanhood. The efficacy of segregation was argued on the grounds of a perceived belief in a natural antipathy of the races and a fear of violence if there were to be integration. Those advocating integration argued the deprivations caused by segregation. There was a gravity surrounding the race cases that was missing from the sex cases. The race decisions! also, were firmly grounded in the Constitution, which was not true for the sex cases.

Fundamentally, blacks and whites were seen as having the same rights even during segregation when they were "separate but equal." Women were never perceived as being the equal of men. They were different and they functioned under a different law. Also, the role of women in the home was primary, not her status in the world outside the home. For blacks, role was never an issue. Rather, for blacks status was the central concern. Finally, the blacks' struggle was perceived as a fight to secure their place in the wider society. The women's place was perceived as in the domestic domain, outside the purview of public concerns.