How fitting that the same week the ERA went out of business--at least for now--the Supreme Court decided, in a case that gives hope to the women's movement, that sex-based discrimination can be attacked in a variety of other ways. This is true notwithstanding the fact that the immediate beneficiary of the court's action was a man.
Joe Hogan is a registered nurse who lives and works in Columbus, Miss. He wants to earn a bachelor's degree in nursing, but was denied admission to the state-run nursing school in Columbus because he is a man. There are two other nursing schools operated by the State of Mississippi, but each is about 150 miles from Columbus. The court found that the state's policy of barring men from one of its three nursing schools violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The opinion, ordering Mr. Hogan's admission to the school, was written by Justice Sandra O'Connor.
This decision applies only to the nursing school in Columbus and not to the entire Mississippi University for Women, and it does not apply at all to private single-sex colleges. But surely it is a signal to women that even in the absence of an Equal Rights Amendment, the court can strike down state statutes and policies that discriminate arbitrarily on the basis of sex. Legal scholars will read this opinion as a guide for future litigation, but everyone should look at the footnotes for an indication of how far we have already come. Two in particular strike the reader as especially anachronistic and must have brought a tear of nostalgia to Phyllis Schlafly's eye.
One footnote tells us that the Alumnae Association of MUW filed an amicus brief in the case urging that the school be allowed to continue its single-sex policy. The brief contains these edifying lines: "In the aspect of life known as courtship or mate pairing, the American female remains in the role of the pursued sex, expected to adorn and groom herself to attract the male. . . . (A women's college) can free its students of the burden of playing the mating game while attending classes, thus giving academic rather than sexual emphasis." Surely this brief was not written by a female lawyer.
There is also a footnote quoting the charter of MUW. The charter appears not to have been changed since the school was founded in 1884 as the Mississippi Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls of the State of Mississippi. The charter declares: "The purpose and aim of the . . . College . . . is the moral and intellectual advancement of the girls of the state by the maintenance of a first-class institution for their education in the arts and sciences, for their training in normal school methods and kindergarten, for their instruction in bookkeeping, photography, stenography, telegraphy and typewriting, and in designing, drawing, engraving and painting, and their industrial application, and for their instruction in fancy, general and practical needlework, and in such other industrial branches as experience, from time to time, shall suggest as necessary or proper to fit them for the practical affairs of life."
In a way, these footnotes are as instructive as the opinion itself in demonstrating that sexual stereotypes are outdated. Few women are studying fancy needlework in college and more men want to be nurses. The freedom of individual Americans to make such choices without regard to sex is basic. The court was right.