Five Supreme Court Decisions That Fundamentally Changed Women’s Lives

Recently, the immense power of the U.S. Supreme Court has been both more evident and controversial than ever. Decisions affecting the rights of women for decades appear to be subject to change by a highly conservative majority. For better or worse, the Court has always impacted the lives of women.

Nearly 250 years after the founding of this country, women continue to wage battles to achieve true equality. It’s difficult to fully understand the challenges our mothers and grandmothers faced, let alone those who went before them. It’s somewhat incomprehensible that women still need to fight for equality in the 21st century.

Of course, not all women agree on what rights the gender should and should not have. However, it’s been the judicial branch of the U.S. government, often devoid of women, which has rendered those decisions. Here are five Supreme Court decisions that fundamentally changed women’s lives.

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)

Roe v. Wade determined that a woman’s right to choose is fundamental to her right to privacy. However, eight years earlier, Griswold v. Connecticut established that the constitutional right to privacy included the use of contraception.

This case nullified a Connecticut law that criminalized the prescription, sale, and use of contraceptives, even for married couples. Seven years later, Eisenstadt v. Baird addressed the right of unmarried individuals to buy and use contraceptives. The Court ruled the prohibition violated equal protection guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.

We’ve come a long way in 50 years. Contraception is easily accessible to women, including online birth control that is delivered discreetly at their doors. That right speaks equally to privacy and protection under the law of the land.

Roe v. Wade (1973)

Despite this decision’s current uncertainty, Roe v. Wade established that a woman’s choice regarding abortion is a fundamental right. The Court held that states may only intervene in a woman’s decision when it has a compelling interest to do so. Moreover, only when a fetus is viable can it qualify as a compelling interest.

Roe v. Wade ostensibly set viability at about 24 weeks, which bars states from prohibiting terminations prior to that point. The current case under consideration by the court is Dobbs. v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization which prohibits them at 15 weeks. But the issue of viability isn’t the only issue on which the conservative majority appears to be basing its pending decision.

Abortion is without a doubt one of the most volatile issues in the country. The arguments for and against run the gamut from religious to moral to medical to personal. At its core, Roe v. Wade ensured a woman’s constitutional right to choose, and that’s what hangs in the balance.

Minor v. Happersett (1874)

From birth control and abortion, we move to the lengthy and hard-fought battle for women’s suffrage. The unanimous decision handed down in Minor v. Happersett established that voting was not a privilege of citizenship. That decision confirmed that the path to women’s voting rights was not going to happen through the courts.

Virginia Minor and her husband, Francis, appealed a lower court decision that held she had no right to register to vote. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision, saying the state of Missouri did not violate the 14th Amendment in prohibiting her from doing so. The Court essentially said that it was legally acceptable for states to allow only men to vote.

It would be another 46 years until the 19th Amendment would be ratified, giving women (white women, anyhow) the right to vote. The timeline for women’s suffrage really began in 1840. However, Minor v. Happersett, which stated unequivocally that female citizens had no right to vote, undoubtedly fanned a growing flame.

Kirchberg v. Feenstra (1981)

In its infancy, the U.S. borrowed many laws from its European forebears, including prohibiting women from owning or controlling property. It took until 1981 for the Court to forbid a husband’s right to control marital property without his wife’s consent. In Kirchberg v. Feenstra, it found that a Louisiana law violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Joan Feenstra’s husband had used marital property as collateral for a promissory note he signed without her consent. At the time, he was incarcerated and needed to pay his attorney. Said attorney threatened to foreclose when Joan refused to pay the balance due on her husband’s debt.

In case you missed it, this was 1981, not 1881, as you might expect. Although most states had already addressed the control of marital property via legislation, it took the Court to lower the boom on holdouts. Coincidentally, the first female jurist on the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, was sworn in six months later.

Corning Glass Works v. Brennan (1974)

The 1963 Equal Pay Act was first tested by the Supreme Court in 1974. It’s difficult not to see the irony in the first glass ceiling case being one that involved Corning Glass Works. The Court found that Corning had indeed violated the guarantees for equal pay for equal work.

The justices didn’t buy Corning’s arguments that pay differences between male and female inspectors were based on factors other than gender. The company offered a shift differential to women working nights but failed to remedy the disparity in base pay. Although Corning said it had equalized base pay, the remedy didn’t apply to those already working the night shift.

The Court might have revealed Corning Glass Works’ glass ceiling, but there’s still a lot of work to do. A 2020 study found that women still make only 84% of what men earn for the same job. Clearly, more than rulings by the Court will be required to truly level the field.

Courts will render judgments that delight and disappoint those on opposite sides of an issue. The disappointed parties may ask the Supreme Court to hear their cases. And thus the Court will continue impacting women’s lives — for better or for worse — for decades to come.

WE SAID THIS: Systematic change is slow and sporadic at best and unattainable at worst. When legislation fails to solve problems women face due to their gender, relief must come from somewhere else. That “somewhere else” has often been the Supreme Court.