By Katherine Greenier, Director, Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights ProjectWomen’s History Month offers an opportunity to reflect on the ACLU’s long history of working for an America where all women and girls have equal access to quality education, employment, housing, and healthcare, irrespective of race, class, income, immigration status or involvement with the criminal justice system.
Women's History Month also helps draw attention to current struggles for women's equality, such as ensuring economic and educational opportunities for all women, ending violence against women, and addressing the harms to women and girls caught up in the criminal justice system. By recognizing women’s many important gains in social and economic equality in the U.S. over the past century and drawing attention to the women who helped lead the way in fighting for those rights, we see how far we’ve come and the work that still needs to be done.
Even before the start of Women’s History Month in 1981, the ACLU committed itself to securing gender equality and ensuring that all women and girls are able to lead lives of dignity, free from violence and discrimination, including discrimination based on gender stereotypes. Suffragists and other women social reformers and political activists -- including Jane Addams, Mary Ware Dennett, Crystal Eastman and Jeannette Rankin -- were instrumental in the founding of the organization in 1920.
In the 1920s, the ACLU defended suffragist and birth control pioneer Mary Ware Dennett when the government declared her sex education pamphlet "obscene.” Her offense: the distribution of her pamphlet, "The Sex Side of Life," a sex education primer for adolescents. In the 1930s, the ACLU fought for the right of Connecticut schoolteachers on maternity leave to be reinstated in their jobs following the birth of their babies. Throughout the 1940s, the ACLU advocated equal pay for equal work and lobbied against federal and state laws that made it a crime to use or sell contraceptives or birth control information. During this decade, the ACLU also challenged a Massachusetts law that prohibited married women from teaching in public schools. During the 1950s, an era that was decidedly unfriendly to women's and civil rights, the ACLU successfully challenged a state law that made it a crime for a white woman to bear the child of a black man. In the 1960s, the ACLU intensified its activism on women's issues, attacking the exclusion of women from juries and petitioning Congress to enact and enforce laws barring discrimination against women. In 1970, the ACLU endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment and declared women's rights its top priority.
The following year, created by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the ACLU established its national Women's Rights Project (WRP) to seek equality for women. Through litigation, community outreach, advocacy and public education, WRP empowers poor women, women of color and immigrant women who have been subject to gender bias and who face pervasive barriers to equality. WRP works to ensure that women and their families can enjoy the benefits of full equality and participation in every sphere of society.
In WRP’s first case, Reed v. Reed, which challenged the automatic preference for men over women in the context of estate law, the Supreme Court for the first time declared sex-based classifications unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, setting a precedent upon which many significant later cases would rest. Under the direction of Professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the ACLU's women's rights docket swelled to more than 300 sex discrimination cases in the project’s first decade. Ginsburg explained that she deliberately chose to work with the ACLU because of the interconnection between civil rights and civil liberties, saying: "I wanted to be a part of a general human rights agenda. Civil liberties are an essential part of the overall human rights concern -- the equality of all people and the ability to be free."
Here in Virginia, the ACLU filed a case on behalf of a newspaper editor in Charlottesville, Virginia who had published an advertisement for an abortion referral service in New York (where abortion was legal). The case, Bigelow v. Virginia, concluded with the Supreme Court ruling that states could not ban advertising by abortion clinics.
The ACLU and its 53 affiliates continue the fight for women’s rights across the nation at the local, state and federal levels. And, thanks to Patricia M. Arnold, the Virginia affiliate has its very own women’s rights project. In 2007, Arnold, a pioneer woman aviator and longtime supporter of the ACLU of Virginia, left the bulk of her estate to establish the Patricia M. Arnold Memorial Fund. The purpose of the fund, according to Ms. Arnold’s will, is “to combat through all legal means, the pervasive and powerful sexual bias and sexual discrimination against women found to exist in the State of Virginia.”
Patricia Arnold was a pioneer in the field of women’s aviation. She began flying in 1948. Arnold flew a Piper Comanche 260, which she named “Snoopy”. She served in the United States Navy, then the reserves. She used the G.I. Bill to get her pilot’s license, soloing after 8 hours of instruction. Arnold started the National Women’s Pylon Racing Association in 1966 and placed first in about one-third of the races that she flew. In 1967 she won the Cleveland Air Race.
The first female owner of a helicopter in the United States, Arnold worked as a flight instructor, a corporate pilot, and an airport manager. In 1957, she was the first person in Connecticut to broadcast traffic advisories from an airplane. She was also a charter member of the Central Connecticut Chapter of the National Organization for Women.
Pat Arnold is emblematic of the reason we celebrate Women’s History Month. Her achievements help showcase the gains women have made, and the establishment of the Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project allows this affiliate to continue the long history of the ACLU’s fight for women’s rights. Women have made great gains in the fight for equality, but there is still a fundamental perception that women and girls are not equal to men and boys. Until that perception changes, gender bias will continue to create huge barriers for many—especially for immigrant women, women with low incomes, victims of domestic violence, and women seeking reproductive health care.