The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ann Hopkins, who won Supreme Court gender-bias case after being denied a promotion, dies at 74

Ann Hopkins in 1990.
Ann Hopkins in 1990. (George Tames/The New York Times)
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Ann Hopkins, who won a major Supreme Court workplace-discrimination case stemming from her denial of promotion at a large accounting firm and whose case formed the basis of later gender-discrimination rulings, died June 23 at her home in Washington. She was 74.

The cause was acute sensory peripheral neuronopathy, a fast-developing nerve disorder of unknown origin, said her daughter, Tela Gallagher Mathias.

In 1978, Ms. Hopkins joined the Washington office of the old Price Waterhouse accounting firm and was, by all accounts, one of the company’s top management consultants.

She developed computer systems for clients and was responsible for winning the firm’s most lucrative contract, a project with the State Department worth up to $44 million. Job evaluations praised her as “a terribly hard worker” and “one of the very best.”

In 1982, she was the only woman among 88 candidates for partnership at Price Waterhouse, which at the time was one of the country’s “Big Eight” accounting firms.

She was rejected. The reasons, she learned, had little to do with the quality of her work.

Instead, Ms. Hopkins’s lawyers later argued, her male colleagues considered her “too macho” and insufficiently ladylike. She was called “pushy” and “overbearing” and, perhaps because of her salty language, was said to need “a course in charm school.”

She smoked, drank beer and did not take her husband’s last name. She once rode to a job interview on her motorcycle.

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A sympathetic male boss, who had recommended Ms. Hopkins for promotion, explained that the company’s hierarchy thought she should “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear makeup, have her hair styled and wear jewelry.”

Ms. Hopkins resigned from Price Waterhouse and became a budget planner with the World Bank. In 1984, she filed a job-discrimination lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“I think of myself as tough-minded, which is different than tough,” she told the New York Times in 1988. “To be tough-minded is to challenge whatever the assertions are.”

Federal Judge Gerhard A. Gesell ruled in her favor in 1985 on grounds of “discriminatory stereotyping of females,” noting that “comments influenced by sex stereotypes” were key factors in denying Ms. Hopkins the partnership.

Gesell did not, however, grant Ms. Hopkins’s request for $1.2 million in damages or to be reinstated to her old job. She continued to pursue her case until it was eventually taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court. In support of Ms. Hopkins, the American Psychological Association filed a supporting brief, citing more than 100 studies on stereotyping by gender.

In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that an employer had to demonstrate that its hiring decisions were based on merit, not on discriminatory notions, including those related to gender.

“In forbidding employers to discriminate against individuals because of their sex, Congress intended to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women resulting from sex stereotypes,” Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote in his majority opinion. “An employer who objects to aggressiveness in women but whose positions require this trait places women in an intolerable and impermissible Catch-22: out of a job if they behave aggressively and out of a job if they don’t. Title VII lifts women out of this bind.”

It was the first time the court ruled that gender stereotyping was a form of discrimination.

After another year of courtroom hearings, Gesell issued a second ruling that forced Price Waterhouse to give Ms. Hopkins her partnership — seven years after it was denied. She also received more than $370,000 in back pay.

Ms. Hopkins rejoined Price Waterhouse, where “the whole ordeal was legend,” a former colleague, Fred Tombar, said in an interview.

“Either you loved Ann or you were intimidated to no end by her,” Tombar added. “There were no lukewarm feelings about Ann. Everyone knew she knew her stuff and was wicked smart.”

She retired in 2002, but her case became the underpinning of a second generation of gender-discrimination litigation, often involving gay and transgender people.

“I had no choice but to sue,” she told The Washington Post in 1988. “I had to do this as a matter of principle. It was inevitable and predictable. I did not set out to be a leader.”

Ann Branigar Hopkins was born Dec. 18, 1943, in Galveston, Tex. Her father was an Army officer, her mother a nurse.

Ms. Hopkins said her mother taught her that “when you shake hands, you should always shake hands firmly, and when you walk into a room, you should walk in as if you owned it.”

She graduated in 1961 from the old Hammond High School in Alexandria, Va., received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1965 from what is now Hollins University in Virginia and obtained a master’s degree in mathematics from Indiana University in 1967.

Ms. Hopkins worked at IBM and the accounting firm of Touche Ross before joining Price Waterhouse. (After later mergers, Price Waterhouse became PricewaterhouseCoopers, or PwC.)

The company developed a “hypersensitivity to issues of diversity because of Ann’s presence,” Tombar said Wednesday. “She was a partner and was in a position to insist that the company respect diversity as a value. She was a pioneer.”

Her marriage to Tom Gallagher ended in divorce. Survivors include two children, Tela Gallagher Mathias of Germantown, Md., and T. Gilbert Gallagher of Washington; a sister; a brother; and five grandchildren. A son, Peter Gallagher, died in 2000.

“I have wondered what might have happened if I had been a partner during those lost years,” Ms. Hopkins wrote in a 1996 memoir, “So Ordered: Making Partner the Hard Way.”

“Would I have risen higher in the ranks to a position where I could have more effectively influenced the firm to cherish diversity? Would some of the men I worked for have been working for me? I don’t know. What I do know is I never compromised on what I valued or believed.”

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