The lives of four women are connected in the fight for parity between the sexes Fate links two justices, a novelist and a student

January 14, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Two Supreme Court justices, a novelist who once called herself a "flaming feminist" and a high school student who hopes to enter an all-male military domain: The lives of these four women are woven together in the past and the future of sex equality in America.

The justices are the first two women to reach the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As the women's rights revolution moved on, both have played roles. They may yet play more decisive roles.

Fate also has linked Ruth Ginsburg, when she was a civil rights lawyer and a law professor, with a Gloucester, Mass., woman -- Sharron A. Cohen, who has a place in women's history for the courtroom battle she and lawyer Ginsburg won 23 years ago.

Ms. Ginsburg was the one on Ms. Cohen's legal team working hardest for a sweeping victory in her case -- a persistence that divided the team so deeply that the leading lawyers made separate pleas to the Supreme Court.

Landmark 1973 case

Ms. Cohen, then an Air Force officer, now a published writer of four romance novels, was the central figure in a 1973 case that so far marks the high-water mark of the bid for full equality of the sexes under the Constitution.

Justice O'Connor, too, has had a pioneering role in women's rights as a Supreme Court justice -- and before.

In her first year on the court, she wrote a ruling making a significant breakthrough on equal educational opportunity for the sexes. It allowed a man to get into a woman's nursing school.

Twenty years ago, as a state senator and a state judge, Ms. O'Connor was serving on a Pentagon advisory committee that urged Congress to give women in the armed forces more chances to serve in career-advancing posts, including duty on warships.

In recent years, the pursuit of equality in the military has drawn the nation's attention to court cases seeking to get women into two all-male colleges that train future military leaders -- Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel.

If opened to women, they would be alternatives to the service academies run by the armed forces. Annapolis, West Point and the Air Force Academy have been admitting women since the fall of 1976, under orders from Congress.

VMI case coming up

The legal case against VMI comes up in the Supreme Court next week. The outcome of that case will directly affect the chances of a high school girl -- Nancy Mellette of Ballentine, S.C. -- who has applied for admission to the other all-male military college, The Citadel.

She was inspired to take on the lawsuit against The Citadel by the prolonged legal fight that temporarily allowed Shannon Richey Faulkner into the cadet ranks.

Ms. Mellette, now a senior cadet in a military high school in Oak Ridge, N.C., is taking a small role in the VMI case, too, as a "friend of the court." Her lawyers are urging the Supreme Court to assure sex equality in the cadet ranks and in the military generally.

Adding to the symbolism of the VMI case is that the court will be led to the bench for a hearing Wednesday by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. He is the only justice left from the court 23 years ago when it decided Ms. Cohen's case. Justice Rehnquist was the lone dissenter in that case.

While the immediate focus of the case is sex equality in military education, its historic potential comes from the renewed effort to achieve the constitutional goal that Ms. Ginsburg came closest to making a reality in 1973.

One vote shy

That near-miss came in Ms. Cohen's case, when she was Air Force First Lt. Sharron A. Frontiero. Ms. Ginsburg's plea then to outlaw almost all forms of sex discrimination got four votes, but lacked a decisive fifth because several justices wanted to wait to see if the states ratified the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, then under review in the legislatures.

After Sharron Frontiero and her husband, Joseph Frontiero, split up, they reaped the meager financial reward of the victory in the Supreme Court: about $2,200, paid by the Air Force as a housing allowance previously denied her under a dependents' benefit law that treated women service members less favorably than men.

Remarried now, living in Gloucester, Mass., Sharron Cohen knows that women did not at that time gain full constitutional protection from discrimination.

The effort by women's rights forces to gain that same level of equality through the proposed ERA also failed nine years later, when ERA lapsed after a 10-year ratification effort.

'It depresses me'

"When ERA went down in flames, I just felt: 'Why didn't you [the court] do it'" in the 1973 case, Ms. Cohen said in a telephone interview. "It depresses me, big time, that there hasn't been the next step. If not through ERA, then one more case should've taken that next step."

Another case that might have been the one Ms. Cohen wanted to come along was the nursing school case in 1982 decided by Justice O'Connor. That case wound up advancing the women's rights cause but only part of the way.

Justice O'Connor's decision was strong enough that it has served as the major precedent for the Justice Department throughout the legal effort to get women into male military colleges.

The constitutional drama goes on, in search of one more case, in pursuit of the same goal. Says Sharron Cohen of her continuing hopes: "I would like to stop being the last precedent."

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