The Supreme Court yesterday nullified state hiring requirements that discriminate against women simply because they generally, are shorter and lighter than men.

The 8-to-1 decision involved an Alabama law requiring prison guards to weigh at least 120 pounds and be at least 5 feet, 2 inches in height. National data show that 40 per cent of the nation's women, compared with only 1 per cent of the men, cannot meet these specifications.

But the court upheld, 6 to 2, Alabama's prohibition on women guards in "contact" positions - those requiring continual close physical proximity to inmates - in maximum security male penitentiaries where there is an "environment of violence and disorganization."

The case origianted when the Alabama Board of Corrections rejected Diane Rawlinson, a 22-year-old college graduate who had majored in correctional psychology, because she weighed less than 120 pounds. She filed a class action in behalf of all women disadvantaged by the height/weight requirements.

While a panel of three federal judges was considering her complaint, the board adopted the ban on women in contact guard jobs. Rawlinson then amended her complaint to claim that both rules violated the Civil Rights Act on 1964 and the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws.

The panel struck down the height/weight requirements, saying that they were neutral on their face but constituted a pattern of discrimination against women without a demonstration by the state of a need for such discrimination.

The panel also found that the bar on women in contact jobs was not under the civil rights law, "a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation" of male penitentiaries.

The court affirmed the panel on height/weight but reversed it on contact jobs, saying that Alabama could keep women out of such jobs under the law's "extremely narrow exception to the general prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex."

"The environment in Alabama's penitentiaries is a peculiarly inhospitable one for human beings of whatever sex," Justice Potter Stewart wrote in the opinion for the court. He cited a lower court's holding that the conditions of confinement, characterized by a "jungle atmosphere" and "rampant violence," are constitutionally intolerable.

Should a woman be free to decide for herself whether to take a contact job in one of the penitentiaries? No, Stewart wrote. He said that a woman's ability to maintain order in a male prison where sex offenders - 20 per cent of the total - are indiscriminately housed in dormitories with others "could be directly reduced by her womanhood."

"There is a basis in fact for expecting that sex offenders who have criminally assaulted women in the past would be moved to do so again if access to women were established within the prison," Steward said.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by Justice William J. Brennan Jr., dissented as to contact jobs, saying the law makes it "simply irrelevant . . . that a guard's occupation is dangerous and that some women might be unable to protect themselves adequately."

Justice Byron R. White dissented to the height/weight judgment on the gound that Rawlinson had not proved discrimination. That being so, he said, he need not deal with the man only requirement for contact jobs.

In another court action:


Former Attorney General John N. Mitchell and former top Nixon White House aide H. R. Haldeman entered separate federal prisons last week to begin serving sentences of 30 months to eight years. At the time, they had pending in the court petitions for a rehearing of the court's refusal to review their convictions for covering up their roles in the Watergate scandal. Yesterday, the court formalized their defeat by denying the rehearing petitions.