10 Essential Supreme Court Cases of Ruth Bader Ginsburg


United States v. Virginia, 1996

VMI female students at graduation
Women were barred from admission at Virginia Military Institute before the 1996 landmark decision in United States v. Virginia. VMI Photos

After taking some time to settle into her role as associate justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg began making a name for herself as an advocate for gender equality and women's rights. In 1996, the case of the United States v. Virginia made that clear. At the time, Virginia Military Institute (VMI) remained the only single-sex school among Virginia's public institutions of higher learning. Alumni of VMI's "citizen-soldier" training were considered to be hot commodities because the unique curriculum was designed to prepare students for leadership positions in civilian life and military service using a specific type of training known as the "adversative method" exclusive to the institution. Thanks to the competitive edge the institution gave alumni, VMI had the largest per-student endowment of all public undergraduate institutions in the country [source: LII].

The United States sued VMI and the state of Virginia, alleging that the school's males-only admission policy violated the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits states from denying anyone within the territory the equal protection of the laws. The state argued that the restriction was fair game because women wouldn't be able to handle the rigorous nature of the program. But VMI attempted to cover its bases by proposing a parallel program for women, called the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership (VWIL), located at a private all-women liberal arts women's school called Mary Baldwin College [source: LII].

Ginsburg and the majority on the court weren't convinced. Writing for the 7-1 majority, Ginsburg asserted, "Virginia maintains that methodological differences are justified by the important differences between men and women in learning and developmental needs, but generalizations about 'the way women are,' estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description" [source: Justia].

Yep, that deserves some applause. She also stated that the VWIL wasn't an adequate compromise since the court considered it "a pale shadow of VMI in terms of the range of curricular choices and faculty stature, funding, prestige, alumni support and influence." The school contemplated going private to circumvent the ruling, but its board decided in a super close vote (8-7) to finally let women through the doors, thus ending the existence of all-male American public universities [source: Justia].