The ACLU has long been in the forefront of the struggle to win full legal equality for women. From its defense of suffragist and birth control pioneer Mary Ware Dennett in the 1920s when the government declared her sex education pamphlet "obscene," to today's battle to admit women to The Citadel, a state-funded military academy, the ACLU continues to be vigilant in its defense of women's rights. The ACLU advocated women's rights long before the feminist revival of the 1960s. Suffragists and othe r women social reformers and political activists -- among them, Jane Addams, Mary Ware Dennett, Crystal Eastman and Jeannette Rankin -- were instrumental in the founding of the organization in 1920.
Since its founding, the ACLU has argued more women's rights cases before the United States Supreme Court than any other organization and has done more work to promote women's liberty and equality than many organizations devoted exclusively to that goal. The ACLU was the first national organization to argue for abortion rights before the Supreme Court, and has been the principal defender of those rights since 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy in Roe v. Wade.
One might even describe the ACLU as "prematurely feminist." 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, the ACLU established its national Women's Rights Project to seek equality for women through litigation. In its first case, Reed v. Reed, which challenged the automatic preference for men over women in the context of estate law, the Supreme Court set a precedent upon which many significant later cases would rest when it ruled that sex-based classifications violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Under the direction of Professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the ACLU's women's rights docket swelled to more than 300 sex discrimination cases during that decade.
Together with the ACLU's 53 affiliates, the Women's Rights Project has brought cases that ensure that women have equal rights in virtually every realm of life -- in the workplace, in education, in the insurance industry, in the criminal justice system, in the family, and in access to public accomodations, clubs and government benefits.
In 1974, in an effort to concentrate resources and expertise, the ACLU also created a national Reproductive Freedom Project to protect the fundamental constitutional right of reproductive choice that had been recognized the previous year in Roe v. Wade. Since its inception, the Reproductive Freedom Project has worked through litigation and legislative advocacy to defeat federal and state assaults on reproductive choice. In all its efforts, the Project's mission has been to ensure that the decision about childbearing is informed, meaningful and without government coercion. Looking to federal and state constitutional theories, the Project has challenged the wide array of government restrictions on access to abortion, including waiting periods, parental consent requirements, and restrictions on funding for poor women.
The Reproductive Freedom Project has also played a critical role in defending comprehensive sex education programs and condom availability programs; in challenging employment discrimination against women based on their choice to have an abortion; and in ensuring that government does not interfere with women's autonomy because of pregnancy. Most recently, with the escalating campaign of harassment and violence against abortion providers, including murder, the ACLU fought for the passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE).
A final measure of the ACLU's commitment to women's rights can be seen in its own employment policies. In 1980, recognizing that women were still underrepresented in higher level positions, the ACLU established the goal of hiring women into 50 percent of all job categories. Today, 4 of the 7 top national executive staff positions are held by women -- the Directors of the Washington Legislative Office, Administration and Finance, Development and Public Education are all women. In addition, 8 of 12 national projects and regional offices are directed by women, including Arts Censorship, Capital Punishment, Women's Rights and Reproductive Freedom. Roughly half of the ACLU's 53 affiliate offices are directed by women. And 33 women sit on the ACLU's 81-member national Board of Directors. In 1991, Nadine Strossen was elected president of the national board, the first woman ever to hold that office.