education heading



Supreme Court Decisions
and Legislation

During the middle of the 20th century, several major Supreme Court decisions and legislation created greater opportunities for women.

Although in the 1800’s it was the norm for teachers to quit their jobs when they were married there were no formal laws enforcing the practice. Towards the end of the century, school districts began adopting policies that barred the hiring of married women and authorized the firing of women who got married during their term (12). These policies were known as marriage bars. The justification was that a woman’s place was in the home. By 1941, several state Supreme Court rulings put an end to marriage bars. 

The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. the Board of Education made a substantial difference in the opportunities for African American women. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and the following year the Court ordered the desegregation of schools. Many segregated African American schools were overcrowded and in terrible condition. Although desegregation offered African American women the hope of receiving the same education as white women, the process was restricted. Although they were given new opportunities, many women also faced new challenges. Desegregation was a long process that was faced with much hostility. 

Many African American women bravely entered schools that had never before accepted African Americans but many of the schools found loopholes which allowed them to continue to exclude them. One such woman was Autherine Lucy. After attending Selma University, Lucy decided she wanted to attend graduate school at the University of Alabama. In 1955, with attorney Thurgood Marshall, Lucy won a court case which forced the University to admit her. At the University, Lucy faced mobs that threw eggs and firecrackers at her and threatened her life. On her third day of classes the University suspended Lucy for her own safety. Lucy and her lawyers filed a suit against the University but were forced to withdraw it and the University then expelled her. In 1988, Lucy returned to the University to give a speech. After her speech several students and faculty began working on her behalf to get the University to overturn the expulsion. They eventually succeeded and in 1989, Autherine Lucy once again enrolled in the University of Alabama and completed her master’s degree in elementary education in 1992.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 states that: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (13). Title IX was the first broad federal civil rights law to explicitly prohibit sex discrimination in the educational system. Before Title IX, female (and male) students were not allowed to take certain courses, participate in certain programs, were restricted by caps on entrance in certain programs, were held to higher standards for admission, and in some cases not allowed into particular schools at all. After Title IX, enrollment rates of female high school graduates into college soared, the number of women receiving bachelor’s degrees passed that of men, and the number of women in historically male programs increased and by 2008-9, U.S. women earned more doctoral degrees than their male colleagues. (14). 

In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that the Virginia Military Institute could not remain a single- sex institute while taking state money. VMI was the last single-sex school funded by the state in the nation. In 1997, the first female cadets enrolled at VMI and in 1999, Chih-Yuan Ho and Melissa Kay Graham became the first women to graduate from the school. 


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Peggy Whitley was the first teacher allowed to teach pregnant and showing. 1968.
Peggy Whitley (above) was the first teacher allowed to teach while visibly pregnant. 1968.

Nettie Hunt and her daughter Nikie on the steps of the Supreme Court after the Brown v. Board ruling.
Nettie Hunt and her daughter Nikie on the steps of the Supreme Court after the
Brown v. Board ruling.

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Barnard School in Washington D.C., 1955
Dorothy Geraldine walking
to Barnard School in
Washington D.C., 1955.
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Autherine Lucy, Thurgood Marshall and Arthur Shore.
Autherine Lucy, Thurgood Marshall and Arthur Shore.
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(c) Copyright National Women's History Museum, 2007