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Orr v. Orr

A Woman's Place Is . . .

Turning to the merits of the case, Brennan stressed that recent Supreme Court decisions had established that "classifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives." He then examined what might have been three objectives of the alimony statutes in question.

William had suggested that Alabama preferred wives to play dependent roles within families and reinforced that model by requiring husbands to pay alimony. As Brennan pointed out--citing the 1975 case Stanton v. Stanton as one example--a law intending to further that state objective could not stand.

Brennan then turned to the opinion of the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals that said divorced wives needed financial aid. The legislature might have meant to "provide help for needy spouses" and "use[d] sex as a proxy for need." The legislature might also have had "a goal of compensating women for past discrimination during marriage, which assertedly had left them unprepared to fend for themselves in the working world after divorce. Of course, . . . assisting needy spouses is a legitimate and important governmental objective."

Citing the 1979 case Califano v. Webster, Brennan remarked that reducing the disparity of incomes between men and women caused by the "long history of discrimination" was an important goal. However, there were other ways to achieve it besides burdening husbands. Alabama required individual hearings before any divorce. These could determine which spouses were "needy" and "which women were in fact discriminated against vis-a-vis their husbands, as well as which family units defied the stereotype and left the husband dependent on the wife."

Brennan concluded his discussion with a few remarks about women's "proper place":

Legislative classifications which distribute benefits and burdens on the basis of gender carry the inherent risk of reinforcing stereotypes about the "proper place" of women and their need for special protection . . . Thus, even statutes purportedly designed to compensate for and ameliorate the effects of past discrimination must be carefully tailored. Where, as here, the State's compensatory and ameliorative purposes are as well served by a gender-neutral classification as one that gender classifies and therefore carries with it the baggage of sexual stereotypes, the State cannot be permitted to classify on the basis of sex.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Orr v. Orr - Significance, Questions Never Asked, A Woman's Place Is . . ., A Divorce Decision Changes The Meaning Of Marriage