Reed v. Reed

14th Amendment of the United States Constituti...

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In 1967, a young man in Idaho tragically took his own life. And out of that tragedy came a landmark case for equal rights for women. After Richard Reed died without a will, both his parents, who were divorced, filed petitions to oversee his small estate. The probate court ruled that his father was the proper person to oversee the estate, because “males must be preferred to females,” as written in an 1864 Idaho law.

Richard Reed’s mother, Sally Reed, fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in the first case in which, in 1971, women were ruled to have equal protection under the law, according to the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. I originally read about this article in the Post Register (subscription required). You can also read it in the Idaho State Journal for free.

Before reading this article, I had never heard of Reed v. Reed before. I think it should be widely publicized, much more so than it is. Sometimes feminists who fought for equal rights claim that younger women take the rights for which they fought so hard for granted. I think younger women (speaking for myself at least) wouldn’t be so quick to take things for granted (or at least seem as though we are) if we were told more about the way things used to be, before we were born.

Think about it. Before Reed v. Reed, a mother could be denied the right to administer her son’s estate, because she was a woman. To me, that is shocking. And yet, no one ever mentioned this to me, the daughter of a feminist.

Last year, many Republicans were discussing partially repealing the 14th amendment, in response to illegal immigration and the birther movement. I believe that is a terrible idea, not least because I don’t believe the Constitution should be changed to accommodate passing moods of the country (if the idea hasn’t been around for at least a generation or two, it shouldn’t be put in the Constitution), but also because the 14th amendment is so important for the equal rights of many people in this country.

Was that Republican push a hidden attack on feminism? It was certainly a not-so-hidden attack on anti-racists and immigrants. Who among us can say their forebears did not immigrate to this country? Certainly not white Republicans.

Some might argue it is stretching the 14th amendment to apply it to the equal rights of women. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who worked on Reed v Reed as a young lawyer, has a response.

“Equality was the motivating idea, it was what the Declaration of Independence started with but it couldn’t come into the original Constitution because of the odious practice of slavery that was retained,” she said. “I think the genius of the United States has been from the original Constitution where ‘we the people’ were white property-owning men to what it has become today. That it is ever more embracive including Native Americans … people who were once held in human bondage, women, aliens who come to our shores.  So ‘we the people’ has a marvelous diversity which it lacked in the beginning.”


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