My allusion in my last post to my favorite feminist opinion by Justice Rehnquist whetted Jonathan's curiosity. The decision is Nevada v. Hibbs (2003). It pertains to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), which requires states and certain large employers to provide employees (whether male or female) 12 weeks of unpaid leave for various family and medical issues, such as the birth or adoption of a child or the care of a sick relative. In Hibbs, the Court decided:
1) Even though states are usually immune from suit, states can be sued for violating the FMLA.
2) The reason is that states can be sued if the federal statute in question is designed to deter and prevent constitutional violations by the state.
3) Congress passed the FMLA (in part) to deter and prevent states from violating the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution.
4) Specifically, Congress was trying to end gender discrimination by creating gender neutral family leave policies.
What I really liked about the opinion is that it strongly articulates the problems that result for women employees as a result of the pervasive assumption that women always bear the primary burden of family responsibilities. Rehnquist wrote:
The impact of the discrimination by the FMLA is significant. Congress determined:
"Historically, denial or curtailment of women's employment opportunities has been traceable directly to the pervasive presumption that women are mothers first, and workers second. This prevailing ideology about women's roles has in turn justified discrimination against women when they are mothers or mothers-to-be." Joint Hearing 100.
Stereotypes about women's domestic roles are reinforced by parallel stereotypes presuming a lack of domestic responsibilties for men. Because employers continued to regard the family as the woman's domain, they often denied men similar accommodations or discouraged them from taking leave. These mutually reinforcing stereotypes created a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination that forced women to continue to assume the role of primary family caregiver, and fostered employers' stereotypical views about women's commitment to work and their value as employees. These perceptions, in turn, Congress, reasoned lead to subtle discrimination that may be difficult to detect on a case-by-case basis.
The opinion also recognized that gender based parental leave policies are also damaging to those men who wish to take on child and family care responsibilities. (Such men are not necessarily a rare breed according to a recent study finding that 79 per cent of U.K. men would be happy to be the full-time caregiver for their children.*)
So there you have it -- Justice Rehnquist may have been conservative, but he was also a feminist (or maybe he was another half Dinosaur, half Feminist. I hear there may be a few of those running around.)
*Thank you Gendergeek for the study.