The fight to end gender discrimination in the U.S. began in the nineteenth century with the women's suffrage movement and the enactment of laws that protected the property that women brought into marriages. By the 1960s, the focus had shifted to ending pay and benefit discrimination based on gender. By the early 1970s, Congress had passed the EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT (ERA) of the U.S. Constitution, which proclaimed equality between the genders. Ratification appeared close by 1973, as 38 states had ratified the ERA. The court system also became an arena for the issue of gender discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court began to consider cases of gender discrimination but hesitated to place gender in the same category as race or ethnicity as a SUSPECT CLASSIFICATION inviting the most rigorous constitutional review. However, a plurality of the court endorsed gender as a suspect classification in Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677, 93 S. Ct. 1764, 36 L. Ed.2d 583 (1973). This important case pushed the Court, and society in general, to recognize the legal disabilities that women had lived with for centuries. Though not a landmark decision, Frontiero signaled the willingness of the high court to take gender issues seriously.
The facts of the case illustrated the disparate treatment built into U.S. society concerning the role of women. Sharron Frontiero was a U.S. Air Force officer who was married to Joseph Frontiero, a full-time student at a college near the Alabama base where Sharron was stationed. Congress had passed a law that provided fringe
benefits to members of the armed forces in the hopes that they would re-enlist and pursue a military career. Under this law, a member of the armed forces with dependents was entitled to an increased housing allowance and comprehensive dependent medical and dental care. However, the law made a distinction between male and female members. A serviceman could claim his wife as a dependent simply by certifying that they were married. A servicewomen like Frontiero, however, could not claim her husband as a dependent unless she proved that he was dependent upon her for more than one-half of his support. Joseph Frontiero's living expenses totaled $354 per month, but he received $250 per month in veteran's benefits. Therefore, he was not dependent on his wife for more than one-half of his support. Based on these calculations, the Air Force denied Sharron...