Social Justice Leadership Against Racism and Sexism: A Retrospective and Prospective Analysis

  • Fenwick W. EnglishEmail author
  • Rosemary Papa
Living reference work entry


The conventional view of leadership, especially which is manifested in producing deep-seated social change, has to be “heroic” in nature. While we do not argue that such leadership inevitably involves heroic actions, the idea that social change requires a “heroic leader” is closely examined in this chapter in the case of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–1957 and the women’s movement toward equal rights. Historical analyses of these two social justice movements revealed that there were many leaders who contributed to the agenda of ending racism and sexism. The evidence suggests that there were multiple “co-leaders” and that singling out just one person for the success or failure ignores the historical evidence and obfuscates the reality that real leadership for social change is not singular but co-relational. This chapter closely examines the role that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. played in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and it examines the broad-based assault on sexism through critical court cases which broke open the traditions of sexism and are still being pursued. The problem with “heroic” leaders is that they rest on the assumption of “entitism,” that is, that there are clear borders which separate leaders from followers when upon close examination there is a dynamic and fluid relationship between leaders and followers in which there are role reversals when the followers empower their leaders and consent to be led by them. The Montgomery Bus Boycott against racism on public transportation and the court cases regarding sexism in public life are examples that relational leadership theory offers a more accurate picture of successful social justice leadership in the past and in the future.


Relational leadership Racism Sexism Martin Luther King Jr. Willystine Goodsell Civil rights movement Ruth Bader Ginsburg American Civil Liberties Union Montgomery Bus Boycott 


Few human enterprises succeed without leadership, and in the case of social justice, any cogent analysis can place the chances at near zero. The reason is not hard to understand. Social justice involves determining fairness in social, economic, and political terms. These nearly always involve how one group of people treat other groups of people, either by legal means or by custom or both, since customs can be encapsulated into laws and religions. There are few more volatile problems in the social justice arena than racism and/or sexism. For the purposes of this article, racism is defined here as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” (Merriam-Webster, 2003, p. 1024). Sexism is defined as “prejudice or discrimination based on sex especially discrimination against women…whose first known use was in 1963” (Merriam-Webster, 2018, pp. 1–2).


Racism in the United States has a long history, having been incorporated as a concept in the United States Constitution in the infamous “two-thirds” clause where slaves were included as property to be counted for purposes of representation, but were only 62% of a whole human being. In recounting how the nation’s founding fathers determined to deal with slavery, Lawrence Goldstone (2005) noted how one of the delegates, John Dickinson, described what has been called “a dark bargain” in these terms:

Acting before the world, what will be said of this new principle of founding a Right to govern Freemen on a power derived from slaves…themselves incapable of governing yet giving to others what they have not. The omitting the World will be regarded as an Endeavor to conceal a principle of which we are ashamed. (In Hutson, 1987, p. 158 as cited in Goldstone, p.123)

The contradiction of freedom for only some of the US population and bondage for others continued to be a divisive issue long after the Constitution became the law of the land. On July 4, 1854, in Framingham, Massachusetts, the noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, famed editor of The Liberator, held up a copy of the United States Constitution, lit a match, and publicly burned it saying, “So perish all compromises with tyranny” (Mayer,1998, p. 445). The legal matter of slavery was resolved in the American Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in US history.

But the plight of African Americans did not significantly improve at war’s end. While legal bondage was abolished, what came after was almost as worse with the formation of Jim Crow Laws that sought to limit Black involvement in government and politics and to cast them into permanent subordination and inferiority. This situation gave way to the civil rights movement, a long and often bloody domestic confrontation to end legalized segregation and which continues to this day with more subtle but still persistent racism in all walks of life.

Arguably, the civil rights movement began with the Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott in 1955. It is within this 2-year conflict (1955–57) that the social justice battle for equality and fairness for African Americans commenced. We now turn to examine the matter of social justice and leadership in that struggle.

The purpose of this examination and analysis is to investigate the nature of how we think about leadership and the role of the leader involved in a social justice struggle. This may enable us to hopefully arrive at a more nuanced, accurate, and predictive portrait of social justice leadership. We may also be able to more effectively engage in a more powerful pursuit of the remaining issues of injustice around the world. Those issues involve not only racism but sexism and misogyny (Papa, 2016, 2017) human sexual trafficking, wealth disparities, and globalization among others (English, 2016).

The Western Ideal of the Heroic Leader

Western notions of a successful leader are deeply rooted in an epistemology and ontology which remain a dominant foundation in the past and the present where leadership is researched and described. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of truth and knowledge. Ontology is a study of the nature of reality. The conventional view of leadership has been labeled postpositivistic (Ospina & Uhl-Bien, 2012).

Postpositivism accepts the premise that knowledge is produced via so-called “scientific” or “empirical” investigations largely echoed in the physical sciences (Searle, 1996). The difference between positivism and postpositivism is that the former was interested in methods which enabled a researcher to verify or confirm a hypothesis and the latter believed that there was no superior method to engage in such confirmation and that the accumulation of knowledge was never isomorphic and followed largely logical or empirical traditions rooted in gradualism. Rather, postpositivism posited that scientific change was more unpredictable than previously imagined (see Kuhn, 1962) and was not subject to confirmation but rather verification by falsification, i.e., by trying to prove a theory was not true (see Popper, 1968).

The bottom line was that what came to be considered “true” or “truthful” upon which a “knowledge base” could be constructed occurred by observing concrete actions or behaviors that leaders used in their roles as leaders. Leadership studies involved discerning traits, habits, espoused beliefs and values or attitudes about problems, or recurring situations.

The central belief about this posture was that it was possible scientifically to isolate a leader from his/her context and look for recumbent patterns and/or decisions which could be abstracted or reified, controlled, and tested in a variety of situations. A host of adjectival studies followed where what leaders did was categorized and enumerated. A critical assumption within this postpositivist framework was that leaders occupied a social space where there were definable borders between them and those impacted by their decisions, habits, behaviors, etc. If this were not true, then it became impossible to know a leader from a non-leader, and the problem of definition threatened such studies with insurmountable ambiguity. Reliable categorization became impossible. Interactions which were the stuff of leader actions occurred between separate entities. Collective action, let us say in a social justice cause, was possible as the interaction between leaders and followers where the leader’s vision, charisma, examples, commands, etc. became translated into righteous collective responses to shared goals or objectives. This assumption has been called entitism (Gergen, 2009).

One can think here of Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount, or the 500-year masterpiece of early political science, Machiavelli’s The Prince (King, 2007; Mansfield, 1996). When leaders are viewed as separate entities within the sphere of collective action, their decisions, battles, and trials fall into the trap of being called “heroic.” The hero leader (most often but not necessarily male) continues a long tradition in the Western mindset, especially when pursuing a righteous cause. So many such heroes come to mind. The Spanish “El Cid,” Scotland’s William Wallace or “Braveheart,” Mexico’s Emiliano Zapata, and one of the few female heroic leaders, France’s Joan of Arc. As stories about them grow with time, they are often endowed with superhuman capacities. Alvesson and Sveningsson (2012) summarize this perspective by commenting that “The good leader then appears a saintly figure capable of producing moral peak performance and avoiding the vulnerabilities that characterize the large majority of the population” (p., 214).

What is missing from these descriptions of such leaders’ abilities and actions is exactly how their attributes (as traits, habits, behaviors) really worked in the action of leading a collective. The actual practice of leadership remains a mystery, though it is assumed with special properties attributed to a leader, he/she exerts control over subjects who come into their sphere of influence. The interpersonal dimensions are rarely enumerated though they may be solidified into abstractions as in contemporary survey research of a quantitative nature. As such they rarely take the phenomenon of leadership out of the black box where it remains.

A study of social justice action when the leader is considered apart from those he/she seeks to persuade or influence is called “leader centric” because the leader becomes the independent variable in the equation with followers dependent on his/her presence. From this perspective a successful social justice movement requires a heroic leader who is either able to inspire, persuade, and/or control a collective.

An Alternative Narrative: Leadership as Relational

Recently an alternative view of leadership has emerged, anchored in relational sociology (Crossley, 2012; Donati, 2011; Donati & Archer, 2015; Eacott, 2015; Emirbayer, 1997). It rests on a different epistemology and ontology. From this vantage point, a leader is not an independent variable in pursuing social justice apart from those who are led but a dependent variable on a collectivity which seeks him/her out, appoints him/her, or accepts him/her because of alignment with the cause, its values, its goals, and its shared sense of injustice. Leadership comes into existence because of the needs of the often unnamed “followers.” Interpersonal relations do not come from the leaders connecting with followers, but instead it’s the interpersonal relations between them which permit or encourage the need for a leader in the first place. Leadership is only possible when there is sufficient understanding between people and not before. The bridge between leaders and followers on an interpersonal level is the link which permits and requires leadership. The matter of reality (ontology) is not independent of the collectivity, but rather it is constructed by that collectivity. The epistemology involved enables knowledge to be created and it does not stand outside of the shared values and meanings of the collectivity. The relational perspective is then postmodern instead of postpositivistic (Ospina & Uhl-Bien, 2012). It is not “out there” but rather “in there,” i.e., co-constructed within a complimentary discourse.

We now take up the case of the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. within the civil rights movement, but specifically as a case study of the Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott of 1955–1957. There are several advantages to selecting this period and place. First, this social justice episode had a definable beginning and end. Secondly, the data surrounding the events are fairly rich including newspaper articles, photographs, firsthand accounts, court records, and biographical descriptions from a variety of authors and viewpoints. With some triangulation it is possible to piece together overlapping descriptions that are corroborative. We begin with a sketch of the context of the Montgomery, Alabama, of 1955. Dr. King had arrived in 1954 as a new pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He was fresh out of the doctoral program at Boston University but had yet to complete his dissertation.

Montgomery, Alabama, Before Martin Luther King Jr.

Montgomery is the capital of Alabama. It was blessed with rich soil and became a hub of King cotton supported by slavery. When representatives of the Southern states wanted a location to meet to discuss succession from the Union, Montgomery became that meeting place. After the Civil War, former slaves became tenant farmers or sharecroppers, and the African American population was greater than the White population until 1910. (Jackson, 2008). The 1950 population was approximately 110,000 of which 60% were White. Montgomery kept to its agricultural roots and failed to develop a manufacturing sector. It did have a nearby military base where segregation was not allowed. African Americans who worked there had to come back home to a segregated city however. A large number of service industry workers were African American and “Approximately two-thirds of the black women in the area found employment as domestic workers” (Jackson, 2008, p. 11).

Montgomery also had a history of black activism and protest against segregation. Troy Jackson (2008) noted that, “While their agendas were not uniform, several men and women had already decided their days of quiet submission under segregation were over years before King ever set foot in the city” (p. 10). We now review some of this resident leadership before the bus boycott went into effect.

Perhaps one of the most visible leaders in the Montgomery Black community was Dr. Ralph D. Abernathy, also a pastor. He was college educated, blunt, and pugnacious. He had been a sergeant in the army in World War II. He was a major leader in the ad hoc group that he named the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). This group was the coordinating brains behind the boycott. The MIA was comprised of 30 plus members, nearly half of whom were pastors and preachers of different denominations (Riddick, 1959). Dr. Abernathy became Dr. King’s second in charge, and the two were often seen together. Whereas King was reluctant to push too hard at times, “As an operator, Abernathy had a boldness that King lacked” (Riddick, 1959, p.118).

Next was Mrs. Jo Ann Robinson. Known as a persistent advocate for social justice, she balanced being a homebody and a teacher with a strong will combined with metaphysical beliefs. She tried marriage briefly but then gave it up. She was a passionate advocate for abused children, especially African American children. She was quick on her feet and in spotting weak points in the opposition.

Attorney Fred D. Gray was critical to the success of the boycott. He was a local person made good. He took his law degree from Western Reserve University in Cleveland. With only being a year out of law school, he became the indispensable legal mastermind for MIA that flummoxed the high-paid legal staffs of the city, county, and state. Various schemes were tried by the segregationists to silence Gray. First they pressured the draft board to reclassify him to 1A when he had been originally classified as 4D. Then the opposition tried to revoke his law license on a trumped up charge of barratry, i.e., posing as a lawyer for someone without actually being employed by that person. Later this charge was dropped. Gray never complained and rode out the storm.

E.D. Nixon was another local boy who rose to prominence, first as a labor leader and then with the MIA. He was a Pullman porter who was not dependent on local wages. This independence shielded him from economic retribution for his work on social justice. He had come from a large family and dropped out of school to support it. Physically a big man, he was forceful but humbled by his lack of education. He was aware he was not a well-honed speaker. But he had been fighting for years for social justice issues in Alabama. His secretary was Rosa Parks. Nixon could have been President of MIA, but he refused to run because his job as a Pullman porter would take him out of town too much, and he would miss meetings. A French reporter, Daniel Guerin toured the United States in 1948 and said of Nixon, “[He] has both feet on the ground. He is linked to the masses. He speaks their language. He has organized the work of race defense with the precision and method of a trade unionist” (Riddick, 1959, p. 125).

Still more Montgomery leaders were Jim Pierce a professor of economics and political science. Born in the Black Belt, he knew more about “the history of race relations in Alabama than King and Abernathy combined” (Riddick, 1959, p. 119). Furthermore, he “was a folksy sort of professor, knowing anecdotes about every politician in the state” (Riddick, 1959, p. 119).

The only White member of MIA was Bob Graetz. He openly embraced the cause of the African American in Montgomery. Graetz was the White minister of the Black Lutheran church. He was an important linkage to the White ministerial community and helped translate MIA’s aims and objectives to them. He was singled out by some in the White community for harassment such as having his car tires slashed and sugar put in his gasoline tank. He was arrested by the police for helping out in the motor pool during the bus boycott.

There were many others linked to the collective anti-segregation agenda in Montgomery, women who worked as secretaries to the leaders and drivers in the car pools. It was an orchestrated resistance “Thus, Martin Luther King did not operate in a leadership vacuum. He was aided and abetted on all sides; surrounded and supported and reinforced. Collective action resulted from collective thought” (Riddick, 1959, p. 130).

The Spark that Set the Civil Rights Movement Aflame

At this moment nearly anyone remotely familiar with the Montgomery Bus Boycott knows about Rosa Parks, the soft-spoken seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a White passenger. Why this modest refusal aroused such passions in the Black community may not be as well known. Mrs. Parks’ refusal and her subsequent arrest by the police capped years of resentment as to how Black passengers had been treated on the city bus system.

First Black passengers had to board the bus in the front and pay their fare. Then they had to step off the bus and walk to the rear to board it from the back. White bus drivers were routinely rude to Black passengers. It is estimated that some 15,000 African Americans rode the bus lines to their jobs each day. This number included school children, domestic workers, laborers, and grocery shoppers. Their treatment on their rides “was constant and the grievances accumulated. When petition after petition for relief to the bus company and the city fathers ended in the wastebasket, there was nothing else to do but stop purchasing a service that was no longer acceptable. The leadership guided this mass treatment into appropriate and peaceful channels” (Riddick, 1959, p. 116).

The spark that set the civil rights movement into motion was struck by Rosa Parks. Parks was no stranger to confrontation nor activism. She had been secretary to E.D. Nixon when he was President of the Alabama NAACP. She had attended the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee which was centered on formulating resistance to segregation in the South. Later she wrote of her experience:

I was forty-two years old, and it was one of the few times in my life up to that point when I did not feel any hostility from white people. I experienced people of different races and backgrounds meeting together in workshops and living together in peace and harmony. (Jackson, 2008, p.77)

Rosa Parks went to jail for refusing to surrender her seat to a White passenger on December 1, 1955. The local African American leaders, E.D. Nixon, Jo Ann Robinson, and others went to work. The idea of a bus boycott for 1 day arose, and flyers were printed and distributed. When three-fourths of Montgomery’s bus riders were African Americans, vacant buses would hurt the profits which kept them running. African Americans in Montgomery were willing to walk. Jackson (2008) summarized it this way, “Because the people of Montgomery were willing to walk, King had the opportunity to lead” (p. 86).
Among other things E.D. Nixon did the night Rosa Parks went to jail was to call on the young new pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and asked him to join the boycott. King was reluctant telling him, “Brother Nixon, let me think on it awhile, and call me back” (Frady, 2002, p. 31). Nixon then called Ralph Abernathy who had already become a friend of Dr. King and urged him to accept the invitation. King agreed as long as he did not have to engage in any organizing (Frady, 2002). The next day King was nominated (the only one) to be the leader of MIA. He consented and was asked to give the major address that evening. When he arrived at the church, 4,000 people were massed outside unable to find seats inside. Then came the initial oratory for which he was famous remarking:

There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being thrown across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November… (Frady, 2008, p.34)

The Montgomery Bus Boycott went on for months. MIA had to use every way of riding and walking possible. “Two hundred volunteer drivers supplying some twenty thousand rides a day” (Frady, 2008, p.38) became standard operating procedure. It was no mean feat of scheduling, coordinating, and cooperating which kept it going. The city and state did their best to crush the boycott. They had MIA’s leaders arrested, and the carpooling efforts of the boycott declared unlawful for using an unlicensed system of public transportation. The end came when the US Supreme Court declared that bus segregation in Montgomery was unconstitutional. The segregationists did not go peacefully into the night. MIA leader’s homes were bombed including King’s and Abernathy’s, and buses were shot at with rifle fire.

Montgomery: The Aftermath

Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last sermon at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on January 31, 1960. At the many banquets and dinners that celebrated him, he no longer enjoyed the same elevated position he once enjoyed. People became critical of his expanded vision of what was ahead in the civil rights movement. He was moving on to Atlanta. At the MIA banquet, he paused to think about what had happened in Montgomery and said to himself:

Martin Luther King didn’t bring about the hour. Martin Luther King happened to be on the scene when the hour came. And you see my friends, when the hour comes you are just projected into a symbolic structure. And even if Martin Luther King had not come to Montgomery, the hour was here. (Jackson, 2008, p. 179)

E.D. Nixon remained in Montgomery until he died. He observed that King was not the same man when he left the city as before he came to the city. The African American author James Baldwin summed up the entire social justice episode when he wrote these words in an article which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in February 1961:

It is true that it was they who had begun the struggle of which he was now the symbol and the leader, it is true that it had taken all of their insistence to overcome in him a grave reluctance to stand where he now stood. But it is also true, and it does not happen often, that once he had accepted the place they had prepared for him, their struggle became absolutely indistinguishable from his own, and took over and controlled his life. He suffered with them and, thus, he helped them to suffer. (Baldwin, 1961, pp. 151-152)

A careful reexamination of events in the Montgomery Bus Boycott shows that the view of leadership as relational more closely matches the actual events than the traditional leader-centric version. King did not come to town with a grand vision, a master plan, and issue commands to confront a segregated bus line. He was summoned by people he knew based on their knowledge of him to assume a leadership role. However, that leadership role was symbolic and not operational. He did not devise the plans for how thousands of African Americans would get to work when they refused to use the city’s bus fleet. His role was to inspire the community and define the nature of the struggle. In the process of interpersonal linkages, the leadership duties sometimes changed hands when those who were being led became the leaders leading the leaders. L.D. Riddick (1959) summarized it this way:

Above all, the impulse and stamina of the boycott movement came from the thousands of Montgomery Negroes—the cooks and maids, the laborers, skilled and semiskilled workers, housewives and students—who were the regular bus riders. They were the people who picked up and swept along their leaders and bore them up whenever the morale of the leadership sagged (p. 113).

In this exchange of the leadership mantle, the notion of entitism was erased. The roles of the MIA leadership were swapped with the membership. Roles were malleable. Context became more important than role boundaries. Far from being erased, context became everything. In the crucible of context, reality (ontology) was co-constructed by the movement participants into a discourse the meaning of which was understood by all the participants. The participants were changed in the process. As Baldwin’s essay indicated the people of Montgomery transformed the leader. “The Martin Luther King Jr. remembered and celebrated around the world was born in Montgomery” (Jackson, 2008, p. 188).

The portrait of future social justice leaders would do well to re-learn the lessons from the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For people to be united, they must share a common fate, bear the same burdens, and suffer the same humiliations.


Concomitant with the ill effects of racial bias is the toll that gender bias takes on female leaders. The history of suppression of women, girls, and those transgendered females is inglorious in the origins of the Unites States and, indeed, the world. Gender inequalities remain deeply entrenched in every society (Couch, 2015). The reasons are found in the cultural artifacts of religion, family development, and the political and economic roles men foster through laws and cultural mores that ensure power by the male gender. And if by culture and religion renders it nearly impossible to share a common fate; but we must persist as the same burdens and humiliations exist for women.

The relationship of race to gender has been difficult to define, especially under the law. Under the 14th Amendment, racial discrimination was odious (Library of Congress, 2018), while gender discrimination for women was not. Using the lens of legal documents, a dissection by economic, cultural/religious, and political tenets we now focus on women’s rights and the impacts on girls’ development as well, the healthy or unhealthy development of boys.

To conceptualize gendered norms, sexuality, and empowerment in adolescence, a 2017 study by Blum, Mmari, and Moreau found:
  1. 1.

    The hegemonic truth: there is a global set of forces from schools, parents, media, and peers themselves that reinforce the hegemonic truths that girls are vulnerable and that boys are strong and independent;

  2. 2.

    Pubertal girls are the embodiment of sex and sexuality…boys are viewed as predators and girls as potential targets and victims;

  3. 3.

    Cover up and don’t go out…girls’ mobility is far more restricted than for boys.


These gendered norms also work greatly against adolescent boys in much higher numbers than girls: boys are more often victims of physical violence, substance abuse, suicide, and a shorter life span. Blum, Mmari, and Moreau contend these are “socially not biologically determined” (p. S4).

Neutralizing gender norms must be done in a three-pronged assault: politically to reset the laws of injustice, economic inequality, and cultural/religious underpinnings that vault the male to power, in a double-edged sword, that cuts boys as well. Weissbourd and the Making Caring Common Team at Harvard (2014) found gender bias toward teen girl leadership to be a powerful barrier. Their key findings are as follows: (1) Many boys and girls expressed bias against girls as leaders in powerful professions, i.e., political leaders and business leaders, while both genders preferred women in female professions; (2) Implicit biases showed students were less likely to give more power to a student council when led by White girls; (3) White girls tended not to support giving power showing bias against White girl leaders; (4) students of color face racial discrimination which may be related to less racial bias than gender bias.

It is this fourth finding that is particularly interesting. It is demonstrated time and again that while racial bias is addressed legally and through changing cultural norms, it is only recently, for example, through #MeToo movement that gender bias is being recognized as equally discriminatory, which conflates the neutral term gender, from sexism women endure.

The PerryUndem study on 1000 + 10–19-year-olds from April to June 2018 found that “adolescents of color to be more progressive on gender equality and are more likely than white respondents to perceive inequality” (PerryUndem, 2018, p. 33). As with the Weissbourd study, there was agreement that all are more comfortable with women/girls to belong in traditional roles caring for children and family. Other findings from the PerryUndem research found that girls “perceiving boys harassing and assaulting girls as linked to power and control (p. 12); “boys perceive and internalize societal pressures to be tough, physically strong, and for some, ready for violence” (p. 15); “one in three boys feels pressure to dominate or be in charge of others” (p. 16); “close to half of boys ages 14–19 has heard their dad or other male family members make sexual jokes or sexual comments about women” (p. 19); and, 71% or seven in ten respondents have heard of the #MeToo movement.

Reshaping cultural norms intertwined with religious tendencies for supreme deital power over the weak, victimized has shown a difficult path to be on. The economic factors that “can raise all” becomes a mantra for educational leaders to:
  1. 1.

    Check our own biases.

  2. 2.

    Cultivate family practices that prevent and reduce bias.

  3. 3.

    Teach teens to spot and effectively confront stereotypes and discrimination.

  4. 4.

    Don’t just let “boys be boys.”

  5. 5.

    Challenge teens’ biased assumptions and beliefs.

  6. 6.

    Use programs and strategies that build girls’ leadership skills.

  7. 7.

    Use [Weissbourd] to spur discussion.


Analysis of Sexism and Court Cases

A powerful avenue to pursue a course to equal rights for women is the law that has politicized gender bias along economic forces often housed in the cultural shroud of family and religion. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU, n.d.) brings to light women’s rights and discrimination by race, in cultural norms. In reviewing these seminal court cases and using the lens filter on economic and cultural, the following cases show the bias toward girls/women, an unrelenting and deafening focus on the female body and its functions which must be legislated by men of all colors.

Additionally, meshed with the ACLU is the National Women’s History Alliance (n.d.) an abridged review of women’s rights in the United States. Table 1 displays a cross-section of cases taken from both these sources blurring the lens by cultural, economic, and political forces. The multifaceted elements that promote second-class citizenship are blurred by the court cases: the economic, cultural, and political lenses are messy but effective in displaying the societal injustices that press on girls and women.
Table 1

Cultural, economic, and political court cases affecting women’s rights




1769 American colonies based their laws on the English common law,…It said, “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law? The very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated into that of her husband under whose wing and protection she performs everything”

1923 National Woman’s Party proposes Constitutional amendment: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and in every place subject to its jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation”

1777 All states pass laws which take away women’s right to vote

1908 Muller v State of Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908): The U.S. Supreme Court upholds Oregon’s 10-hour workday for women. The win is a two-edged sword: the protective legislation implies that women are physically weak

1932 The National Recovery Act forbids more than one family member from holding a government job, resulting in many women losing their jobs

1866 The 14th Amendment (ratified by the states in 1868), “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective members, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. . . But when the right to vote . . .is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State . . . the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in proportion.” It is the first time “citizens” and “voters” are defined as “male” in the Constitution

1936 United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, 13 F. Supp.334 (E.D.N.Y 1936) aff’d 86 F 2d 737 (2nd Cir. 1936), won judicial approval of medicinal use of birth control

1938 The Fair Labor Standards Act establishes minimum wage without regard to sex

1875 Minor v Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1875): The U.S. Supreme Court declares that despite the privileges and immunities clause, a state can prohibit a woman from voting. The court declares women as “persons,” but holds that they constitute a “special category of _nonvoting_ citizens.”

1961 In Hoyt v. Florida, 368 U.S. 57 (1961): The U.S. Supreme Court upholds rules adopted by the state of Florida that made it far less likely for women than men to be called for jury service on the grounds that a “woman is still regarded as the center of home and family life”

1963 The Equal Pay Act is passed by Congress, promising equitable wages for the same work, regardless of the race, color, religion, national origin or sex of the worker

1964 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act passes including a prohibition against employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex

1976 Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190: The U.S. Supreme Court declares unconstitutional a state law permitting 18 to 20-year-old females to drink beer while denying the rights to men of the same age. The Court establishes new set of standards for reviewing laws that treat men and women differently—an “intermediate” test stricter than the “reasonableness” test for constitutionality in sex discrimination cases

1971 Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71: The U.S. Supreme Court holds unconstitutional a state law (Idaho) establishing automatic preference for males as administrators of wills. This is the first time the court strikes down a law treating men and women differently. The Court finally declares women as “persons,” but uses a “reasonableness” test rather than making sex a “suspect classification,” analogous to race, under the Fourteenth Amendment

1973 Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 and Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179: The U.S. Supreme Court declares that the Constitution protects women’s right to terminate an early pregnancy, thus making abortion legal in the U.S

1981 Kirchberg v. Feenstra, 450 U.S. 455, 459-60, overturns state laws designating a husband “head and master” with unilateral control of property owned jointly with his wife

1974 Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur, 414 U.S. 632 (1974), determines it is illegal to force pregnant women to take maternity leave on the assumption they are incapable of working in their physical condition

1981 The U.S. Supreme Court rules that excluding women from the draft is constitutional

1987 Johnson v. Santa Clara County, 480 U.S. 616 (1987): The U.S. Supreme Court rules that it is permissible to take sex and race into account in employment decisions even where there is no proven history of discrimination but when evidence of a manifest imbalance exists in the number of women or minorities holding the position in question

1976 General Elec. Co v. Gilbert, 429 U. S. 125 (1976), the Supreme Court upholds women’s right to unemployment benefits during the last three months of pregnancy

1989 In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 492 U.S. 490 (1989), the Supreme Court affirms the right of states to deny public funding for abortions and to prohibit public hospitals from performing abortions

1998 Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America agrees to pay $34 million to settle an E.E.O.C. lawsuit contending that hundreds of women were sexually harassed

1984 In Roberts v. U.S. Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609 (1984), sex discrimination in membership policies of organizations, such as the Jaycees, is forbidden by the Supreme Court, opening many previously all-male organizations (Jaycees, Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions) to women

2000 United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000). The U.S. Supreme Court invalidates those portions of the Violence Against Women Act permitting victims of rape, domestic violence, etc. to sue their attackers in federal court

2000 CBS Broadcasting agrees to pay $8 million to settle a sex discrimination lawsuit by the E.E.O.C. on behalf of 200 women

*2015 Texas Dep’t of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 2507, 576 U.S. ___. The Court holds that the Fair Housing Act prohibits practices that have a discriminatory effect, known as “disparate impact,” even in the absence of discriminatory intent…. as a tool for stopping housing discrimination against survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault

2006 The Supreme Court upholds a ban on the “partial-birth” abortion procedure.The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, a federal law passed in 2003, was the first to ban a specific abortion procedure

2013 Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The new bill extends coverage to women of Native American tribal lands who are attacked by non-tribal residents, as well as lesbians and immigrants

2009 Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act allows victims, usually women, of pay discrimination to file a complaint with the government against their employer within 180 days of their last paycheck

*2016 Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, 136 S.Ct. 2198, 579 U.S. ____. In a 4-3 decision, the Court upholds the University of Texas at Austin’s race-conscious admissions program under the Equal Protection Clause. Reaffirming the ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court holds that race can be a factor in admissions to achieve the compelling interest of diversity… was narrowly tailored to serve this compelling interest

2013 United States v. Windsor 570 U.S. Supreme Court decides that a key part of DOMA, the law that restricts federal recognition of same-sex marriage, is unconstitutional because it violates the equal protection clause of the constitution

*2013 Vance v. Ball State University, 133 S. Ct. 2434, 570 U.S. ___. In a five to four decision, the Court rules that in holding an employer liable under Title VII for a supervisor’s sexual harassment, a person will only be considered a “supervisor” if the employer has formally authorized him or her to take tangible employment action against the victim. The Court defines “tangible employment action” to mean “a significant change in employment status,” such as hiring, firing, and failing to promote. In a vigorous dissent, Justice Ginsburg criticizes the majority for being out of touch with modern workplace realities and weakening workers’ protection from harassment

*2016 Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 136 S.Ct. 2292, 579 U.S. _____. The ACLU authors an amicus brief urging the Court to strike down two Texas abortion restrictions. The first restriction required physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. The second required abortion clinics to meet the standards of an ambulatory surgical care center. The Court invalidates both restrictions, holding that they placed an undue burden on the right to obtain an abortion and imposed substantial obstacles without providing countervailing medical benefits

*2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751, 573 U.S. ___. The Court rules that “closely-held” corporations can claim that their “religious beliefs” exempt them from providing insurance coverage for their employees’ contraception as mandated by the Affordable Care Act. The ACLU authors an amicus brief in this case emphasizing that a for-profit business enterprise cannot raise religious objections to avoid compliance with a law designed to further women’s health

*2015 Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 1338, 575 U.S. ___. The Court holds that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, or PDA, requires employers to provide pregnant employees with the same on-the-job accommodations, such as light duty, as they do to other non-pregnant employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. Significantly, the Court rules that an employer may not cite the cost or convenience of providing such accommodations as the reason for denying them. The Women’s Rights Project co-authors an amicus brief in this case

*2017 Sessions v. Morales-Santana, 137 S.Ct. 1678. The Court holds that Section 1409(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which establishes a physical presence requirement for children of unwed U.S. citizen fathers—but not mothers—violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion rejects the purported justifications for the sex-based distinction as resting solely on gendered assumptions about parental responsibility, citing the ACLU’s amicus brief

*2016 Zubik v. Burwell, 136 S.Ct. 1557, 578 U.S. ____. The Court, in a per curiam opinion, declines to decide the merits of a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate brought by religious nonprofits. The petitioners argued the contraceptive coverage opt-out procedure violates employers’ rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The Court sends the case back to the lower courts and strikes a compromise where insurance companies could provide contraceptive coverage to petitioners’ employees without notice from petitioners. The ACLU argues in an amicus brief that the contraceptive opt-out accommodation did not violate RFRA

*2017 Bank of America v. City of Miami, 137 S.Ct. 1296, 581 U.S. _____. In a 5–3 decision, the Court reaffirms that when housing discrimination harms a city’s residents and tax base, the city can sue under the Fair Housing Act, if its injuries were directly caused by the discrimination. The ACLU files an amicus brief


Abridged from 2 sources:

National Women’s History Alliance. (n.d.). Writing women back into history. Retrieved from

*ACLU. (n.d.). Timeline of major Supreme Court decisions on women’s rights. American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved from

Papa and English (2014) agreed with the Fraser’ (1996) analysis that dimensions of justice (redistribution and recognition) span all social movements. Fraser (2010; 1996) defined “the principle of participatory parity” to be the “substantive principle of justice by which we may evaluate social arrangements the latter are just if, and only if, they permit all the relevant social actors to participate as peers in social life” (p.29). Her belief that a norm is considered democratically legitimate, “if, and only if, they can command the assent of all concerned in fair and open processes of deliberation” (p.29). Fraser (1996) in her early work described this as:

…the two kinds of justice claims are typically dissociated from one another - both practically and intellectually. Within social movements such as feminism, for example, activist tendencies that look to redistribution as the remedy for male domination are increasingly dissociated from tendencies that look instead to the recognition of gender difference. And the same is true of their counterparts in the U.S. academy, where feminist social theorizing and feminist cultural theorizing maintain an uneasy arm’s length coexistence. The feminist case exemplifies a more general tendency in the United States (and elsewhere) to decouple the cultural politics of difference from the social politics of equality. (Fraser, 1996, p. 4)

The above table is not meant to be discrete in the categories of economic, cultural, and political as the court cases blurriness speak to the complex factors upon which women and girls are treated as less than. The obvious cultural with high economic impact rests with the power of the law and courts to dictate the female body to ensure women and girls do not control themselves. The lens of cultural/religiosity done in the name of a deity is meant to be followed even when it is sexist in argument and act. Political remedies are still prey to cultural norms of who is in power and who is dominated.

There is no answer for men and women who prefer a deity approach to life that ensures women are in the biblical sense preferred to be protected and subservient, as with Christianity, to follow a writing from the third century A.D. That said, spirituality of a variety of deities will perhaps be the slowest of the norms to culturally reframe equality. The economic forces that support women and their children in poverty can be altered, politically with activist actions to “raise all” women and girls. The cultural traditions that impact the role of girls and women require educational leaders to exhume their families growing up so clarity in the daylight is achieved, ensuring there is no bias when the educator enters the school house gate.

In the status order, meanwhile, the entrenchment of racist and Eurocentric norms privileges traits associated with “whiteness,” while stigmatizing everything coded as “black,” “brown,” and “yellow,” paradigmatically -but not only -people of color. Pervasively institutionalized, these racist and Eurocentric norms generate racially specific status injuries. Denied the full rights and protections of citizenship, members of racialized groups endure, for example, police assault; discrimination in housing, employment, and health care; media stereotyping; the devaluation of their cultural production; harassment and disparagement in everyday life; and exclusion or marginalization in public spheres. Quintessential harms of misrecognition, these injustices can be remedied only by a politics of recognition. (Fraser, 1996, pp. 18-19)

This applies to sexism as well with an equal ferocity when done in the name of tradition and religion.


In the discussion on sexism, the contention is that what discrimination women face, men do as well. Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued her first case in the Supreme Court on behalf of an Air Force female who applied for benefits for her dependent husband. The Air Force asked her to prove he was dependent. Air Force males with wives did not have to prove wife dependency, as it was assumed to be so. In Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), a gender discrimination and government benefits, an amicus brief written by Ginsburg used the statute to argue that gender-based discrimination hurt men, too. “Why,” she asked the Court during oral arguments, “did the framers of the 14th Amendment regard racial [discrimination] as odious? Because a person’s skin color bears no necessary relationship to ability. Similarly, a person’s sex bears no necessary relationship to ability” (Blakemore, 2018, pp. 2–3).

As we seek parity in socially just ways from economic second-class citizenship, the political opportunities can successfully impact women (and men) through a belief that voting and running for office to demand women’s rights and race rights will benefit all. The cultural norms that those in power seek to ensure their legal and moral standing are more difficult to erase and find the common good for women. As educational leaders it is imperative that we examine our personal biases and help to move to a more enlightened world where men and women are treated equally.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ball State UniversityMuncieUSA
  2. 2.Soka University of AmericaAliso ViejoUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Kadir Beycioglu
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of Education at Buca, Department of Division of Educational AdministrationDokuz Eylul UniversityIzmirTurkey

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