If America had a “Founding Mother,” it surely was Abigail Adams, the wise and witty “best friend” to her husband John. She is remembered for many things, but perhaps most often for a letter she wrote to John in March 1776, when he was serving in the Continental Congress, writing laws to govern colonial America.
“I long to hear,” she wrote, “that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.”
History remembers, of course, that her plea went unheeded. Women in the colonies – especially married women – had few rights. They could not vote, they could not file lawsuits, write a will, buy or sell property. They were, legally, confined to a “separate sphere” from men for their daily existence, but with no legal personality separate from their husband’s.
Many years later, in 1873, an Illinois woman named Myra Bradwell attempted to break out of that sphere. Educated in the law, she wanted to practice her profession. She was denied a license to do so, for one reason: she was a woman.
She appealed to the Supreme Court, and lost; the Court, by a vote of 8-to-1, upheld a state court decision denying her a license. What has remained, infamously, from that ruling were the comments of one of the Justices, Joseph P. Bradley, in a separate opinion. He wrote:
“The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life….The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”
It is a mystery how a judge could find such a mandate from God, but Justice Bradley’s sentiments were hardly novel for that time.
How different the constitutional role of women would seem in modern America. In 1992, the Supreme Court would say this: “The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” That is drawn from the lead opinion that year in the case of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey.
That was the decision that turned aside the repeated efforts by the federal government, and others, to persuade the Court to overrule the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade – the first decision to recognize, within the Constitution, the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy.
Today, it seems, the Supreme Court is set to overrule both of those decisions. If that does happen, it would be the very first time in American history that the Court had erased a constitutional right that itself had established.
And the right that was lost, obviously, would be one that is held only by women.
As a thought experiment, suppose that on Monday evening of this week, Abigail Adams had returned to us, and could be found sitting in her living room in Braintree, Massachusetts, watching television. She would have heard that the Supreme Court was circulating a draft opinion in a Mississippi abortion case, with the specific aim of casting aside the precedents in Roe and Casey. She might have mused that, once again, women had been forgotten in the affairs of state.
The sweep of constitutional history has often left women in a second class, even if not always in as demeaning a position as Myra Bradwell found herself.
The right to vote for racial minority citizens was written into the Constitution in 1870 (the Fifteenth Amendment) but not until a half century later — 1920 — for women (the Nineteenth). Legal equality for all people – except women – was added to the Constitution with the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.
As of today, legal equality is not guaranteed to women by anything in the Constitution’s text. It was not until 1971 that the Supreme Court began interpreting the equality guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment to protect women.
In the 1971 case of Reed v. Reed, the Court ruled that Idaho violated that Amendment’s equality principle when it gave males a preference over females as administrators of estates. Sally Reed (represented by a prominent women’s rights lawyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg) won the case, but women did not achieve full constitutional equality even then.
Only two years after that constitutional breakthrough, the Court decided in favor of a right to abortion in Roe v. Wade. That ruling was not based on equality principles, but on a right of privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment.
In 1976, three years after the initial equality-for-women decision in the Idaho estate case, the Court filled the gap by devising a test on how courts are to judge claims of sex bias. In the 1976 decision in Craig v. Boren, the Court ruled that claims of discrimination based on sex or gender would have to meet a more difficult test than claims of racial bias. Racial discrimination is almost always unconstitutional, sex discrimination less so.
That case involved an Oklahoma youth, Curtis Craig, challenging a law that allowed 18-year-old girls to consume non-alcoholic beer, but allowed males to do so only at age 21. (Ginsburg was also on Curtis Craig’s legal team, and the young man’s victory illustrated a part of Ginsburg’s strategy – that is, to win equality for males, too, on the premise that it would also benefit females.)
Women and girls, of course, have often gained promises of legal equality in laws passed by Congress, state legislatures or local governments, but those are not complete substitutes for full constitutional equality.
Even today, women’s rights advocates are still trying – after a century – to put an Equal Rights Amendment into the Constitution. As long as the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution without an ERA, women’s equality will remain less robust.
ERA was first introduced in Congress 99 years ago (1923) and in modern times came within three states of being ratified. An effort to revive ERA now depends on the outcome of a case pending in federal appeals court in Washington as well as on efforts in Congress to revive the amendment.
President Biden has strongly supported ERA, but his Administration argued in March, in the federal appeals court case, that this was not a proper lawsuit to test whether the Amendment has already been ratified by actions of three states which changed their minds on ratification from No to Yes.
Although the entire history of women’s rights is marked with disappointments among the triumphs, nothing that has happened before is likely to have the constitutional significance to match that of overruling the right to abortion. The nation is likely to know, by early July at the latest, whether that will actually occur.