A Case at the Crossroads:Craig v. Boren, An Historical Analysis
In 1976, two underage men and a liquor store owner challenged an Oklahoma statute that allowed the sale of 3.2 beers to women, but not men, between the ages of 18 and 21. The United States Supreme Court reversed a federal district court ruling and overturned the law, holding that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and setting a new standard for scrutiny of gender-based classifications.
The state justified the gender difference in drinking age by contending that men ages 18-21 were more likely to drive drunk than women of the same age. Many believed this rationale was merely a pretext to keep alcohol away from young men.
Whatever its purpose, the statute reinforced traditional gender stereotypes. It was a manifestation of the "chivalry complex"--putting women on pedestals and treating them as if they were more virtuous than men. While laws that viewed women as morally superior seemed to confer benefits on them, they actually bound women to certain roles and excluded them from "unladylike" activities. The law challenged in Boren was based on an assumption that women were more refined, less wild, and less likely to get drunk than men. Those women supporting the right of young men to drink feared that the "chivalry complex" would either lead to loss of "benefits" if women stopped conforming to cultural expectations or to denial of access to services normally available to men. By striking down what the state described as a benefit for women, the Supreme Court advanced the social and political position of women by treating them as the legal equals of men.
The Oklahoma statute was also a manifestation of a long-term relationship between gender and alcohol consumption. The temperance movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was led by women afraid of the consequences of male drinking. Prohibition advocates, constantly describing incidents of male violence against women and children, equated temperance with goodness. The law overturned in Boren was based on the same prohibition mentality. It sought to take alcohol away from men because they were considered more reckless than women.
During the decade before Boren, the Court had decided an increasing number of gender discrimination cases. "Suspect classifications"--involving race, religion, and nationality--were reviewed with strict scrutiny, which required that a challenged law further a compelling state interest to be upheld. Gender classifications were reviewed using a "rational basis" test. This standard validated a law if it had a rational connection to a legitimate state interest. This test produced few favorable results for women. Flimsy rationales given by states were approved by the courts. Shortly before Boren was reviewed, four Justices called for use of the strict scrutiny standard in Frontiero v. Richardson. The other five continued to use the rational basis test. Craig's attorneys advocated strict scrutiny, but also suggested a compromise--heightened standard of review for outdated gender classifications. Brennan's majority opinion in Boren followed the suggested compromise, invalidated the drinking age statute under an intermediate standard of scrutiny requiring that a gender-based classification must serve and be substantially related to an important government objective. The statistics used by Oklahoma to bolster the law in question were insufficient for the Court to link the law and its goal of preventing drunk driving to an important objective.
Boren marked the end of a period of ambivalence about how to apply the Equal Protection Clause to gender. Over 20 years after Boren, there is still debate over how to apply the intermediate scrutiny standard. The decided cases present a mixed picture of judicial attitudes about gender discrimination.
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