Gender Matters: Graduate Student Presents Theory Concerning Gender Constructions in the Supreme Court

This past Friday, Kristine Coulter, a graduate student in political science at UCI, presented her theory regarding gender constructions in the Supreme Court to multiple heads and graduate students of the department. Her theory stated that when women are present in Supreme Court decisions, they have a clear influence over the decision-making, thus legal changes arise.

“Most studies concerning gender study Congress, but I want to focus on the Supreme Court,” Coulter stated.

She decided to study court cases beginning from 1971 because prior to 1970s, the Supreme Court reinforced gender differences up until Reed versus Reed. The decision ruled that administrators of estates couldn’t be named in a way that discriminates between sexes, thus minimizing gender differences.

Coulter’s theory states that women’s legal and social power influences which approach the judges take. She derived this conclusion from the panel effect, which stated that “males think females have more knowledge of sex discrimination, therefore they side with their opinions regarding such.”

“Gender constructions are influenced by the genders and ideologies of those in the court,” Coulter said. “Although, judges are influenced by their environment, others mediate it. They respond to popular demands, but they’re not as democratic as those around them think.”

Coulter takes two approaches that the judges take into account during decision-making in these kinds of cases.

“When judges take the sameness approach, they choose to judge the two sexes equally. The difference approach is the opposite, and states that the sexes are different but not how or why,” Coulter said.

With this in mind, Coulter questioned what accounts for the variation that the difference approach fails to account for.

Coulter studied 50 cases and reviewed over 100 opinions of those varying from amicus briefs to law clerks to attorneys. In choosing her cases, she filtered through 2,000 cases under the keywords “women,” “protection,” and “equal protection clause.” To filter, Coulter identified the major legal questions the Supreme Court was resolving in each issue. In doing so, she also had to account for gender variations that judges make in their decisions.

She highlighted three particular cases that aligned with and contrasted her theory, Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), United States v. Virgina, and Rostker v. Goldberg. The first two are cases that contrasted each other in ruling gender differences, but Frontiero v. Richardson highlighted that interest groups and amicus briefs did not influence the final decision, which stated that the position of women has improved marketwise.

In the Q-and-A, many pointed out small faults that Coulter failed to account for in her research. One asked, “How do you distinguish the real differences versus stereotypes between males and females? You only recognize the reproductive differences between the two. For example, traditions—are they reality or stereotypes?”

A conceptual issue then arised.

“You treat all women as if they would have the same point of view. Language also counts in the court matters. There are still conservative female interest groups; how does this get accounted for?” asked Mark Petracca, Associate Professor of political science.

Kristine Coulter was willing to admit these errors, and also cleverly pointed out that a majority of the faults being hurled at her were primarily from the male members of the audience.