Remembering Ann Hopkins, Gender Justice Pioneer

By Prof. Michael Yarbrough

I was sad to hear of Ann Hopkins’s passing this week, and even sadder to know that there’s little chance she’d win her case with the current Supreme Court. For those unfamiliar with this case, Price Waterhouse v Hopkins established that sex stereotyping is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII.

Ann Hopkins worked in a field that required aggression to succeed, but she was denied promotions for being too aggressive. Hopkins was discriminated against not so much for being a woman, but instead for not being “womanly” in the way womanhood has been traditionally understood. But if she were more womanly in a traditional sense, she wouldn’t have met the qualifications for promotion. The Supreme Court ruled that double-binds like this constitute sex discrimination. This is important because, before this case, sex discrimination could only be found when a worker was discriminated against because they were a woman. This case made it possible to reach discrimination for being the wrong kind of woman. (Later cases extended these holdings to men who suffered discrimination on the job.)

For this reason, Price Waterhouse v Hopkins is an especially important case for LGBTQ people. It has played a crucial role in attempts to define “sex” in antidiscrimination law to include sexual orientation and gender identity. For example, the Obama administration relied on this case for its argument that existing sex discrimination law also covers transgender people, because they’re also discriminated against for not being the “right” kind of man or woman. Because the words sexual orientation and gender identity don’t appear in federal employment discrimination law, this is the only way to prevent such discrimination under federal law without new legislation.

In a sense, I’ve always thought of this case as the key point where the Supreme Court replaced a narrow understanding of “sex”—the word used in Title VII—with a broader understanding of “gender.” It’s a case that shows how gender structures oppress a wide range of people, and how patriarchy, heterosexism, and transphobia are all connected. Thank you to Ann Hopkins for standing up and helping carve this important path of jurisprudence. May she rest in power.

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