In Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan (1982), the US Supreme Court ruled by a five-to-four vote that the single-sex admissions policy of the Mississippi University for Women (MUW) violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court made clear that individuals may not be excluded from educational institutions based on gender alone.
MUW, a state-supported institution, was established in Columbus in 1884 as the Mississippi Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls of the State of Mississippi. MUW’s School of Nursing was established in 1971. Joe Hogan, a registered nurse, applied for admission to MUW’s nursing program in 1979. He was otherwise qualified but was denied enrollment because he was a male. He was permitted to audit nursing courses but could not enroll for credit.
Hogan filed suit in the US District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, claiming that the female-only admissions policy violated the Equal Protection Clause. The court granted summary judgment in favor of MUW because it found that “the maintenance of MUW as a single-sex school bears a rational relationship to the State’s legitimate interest ‘in providing the greatest practical range of educational opportunities for its female student population.’”
Hogan appealed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the district court’s decision and held that the admissions policy was unconstitutional because it discriminated on the basis of gender. It imposed a higher standard than the district court and found that the state had to show that the gender-based classification was substantially related to an important governmental objective. The 5th Circuit ruled that the state failed to meet this burden.
MUW then appealed to the US Supreme Court. Writing for the Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor began by noting that because the admissions policy expressly discriminated against applicants to the School of Nursing on the basis of gender, it was subject to scrutiny under the Fourteenth Amendment. The party seeking to uphold the gender classification had to show an exceedingly persuasive justification for it, a burden that could be met “only by showing at least that the classification serves important governmental objectives and that the discriminatory means employed are substantially related to the achievement of those objectives.” The objective could not be excluding or protecting members of one gender because they were “presumed to suffer from an inherent handicap or to be innately inferior.”
The Court pointed out that under limited circumstances, gender-based classifications may be justified if the classification assists members of the sex facing disproportionate discrimination. The state argued that this was the goal of its single-sex admissions policy. The Court disagreed with this argument, pointing out that women earned more than 98 percent of US nursing degrees and thus did not face discrimination in pursuing that type of education. In the Court’s view, rather than compensating for discrimination against women, MUW’s admissions policy tended to “perpetuate the stereotyped view of nursing as an exclusively woman’s job.”
The Court therefore found that the state had failed to prove that the alleged objective of educational opportunity for women was the actual purpose of the discriminatory classification. The state had also failed to show that the females-only policy was substantially and directly related to its proposed compensatory objective because the practice of allowing men to audit the nursing courses completely undermined the state’s claim that men adversely affected women in the nursing program.
The Court affirmed the judgment of the 5th Circuit and held that MUW’s School of Nursing admissions policy limiting enrollment to women violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justices Warren Burger, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, and William Rehnquist dissented, primarily on the grounds that the majority required too rigid requirements of the state and that Hogan’s only injury was one of inconvenience.
Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan has become important precedent for cases involving single-sex educational institutions, establishing that individuals cannot be refused admission to public educational institutions based solely on their gender. This decision proved instrumental in United States v. Virginia (1996), in which the Supreme Court required the Virginia Military Institute, the last state-supported all-male university in the United States, to admit women.
- Frances Elizabeth Burgin, Journal of Women and the Law (2001)
- Debra Franzese, American University Law Review (February 2007)
- Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, 458 US 718 (1982)
- Mississippi University for Women website, www.muw.edu