Suppose there were a very special public school in your district where admission was limited to the academically gifted who scored highest on a competitive examination. Over 98 percent of the school's graduates went on to college; some had gone on to win the Nobel prize. A good percentage of the teachers at this high school had PhDs, the library was the envy of many colleges, as were the computer facilities and the labs, which even had a cyclotron. You--in this hypothesis--were a taxpayer in the district, and your children were brilliant and highly motivated, but they couldn't go to this special school. They were girls.
Until this month, that was the situation in the city of Philadelphia. The institution was Central High School, the oldest public secondary school in the city, and no girl had been allowed to attend since its founding in 1836. Nine years ago a suit seeking admission was brought by a female high school student, but appellate judges held that the l4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not bar the single-sex policy. This year's litigants tried a different tactic. They said the school's policy was discriminatory and in violation not only of the 14th Amendment but of the Pennsylvania constitution's equal rights amendment. They were successful, and last week six female students joined the senior class at Central.
The Philadelphia case is only the most recent in a series of successful suits brought in the 16 states that have ERAs. In the absence of an amendment to the federal Constitution, and with courts often reluctant to rely on the 14th Amendment in sex discrimination cases, state ERAs are, according to a recent article in the National Law Journal, "particularly promising tools for sex discrimination claims." Women's rights lawyers four years ago began a project designed to test these amendments and coordinate information from all ERA states. The Women's Law Project, a Philadelphia-based organization, runs a litigation pilot project in that city; the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York serves as a clearinghouse on the operation of the statutes in all 16 states. In Pennsylvania, sex- based automobile insurance rate tables have been overturned by the courts; so has the Girard College will barring orphan girls from that private school. In Maryland, which also has an ERA, the amendment has led to the elimination of many gender distinctions in the state's domestic relations law, and is the basis for the state's suit against the all-male Burning Tree Club.
Women's rights advocates do not see state amendments as a substitute for a federal ERA. But until such time as the national Constitution may be amended, these state charter provisions provide effective protection in some states and models for the others.