Frontiero v. Richardson

Gender Discrimination and Military Spouses

US Supreme Court Building
US Supreme Court Building. Tom Brakefield / Getty Images

edited with additions by Jone Johnson Lewis

In the 1973 case Frontiero v. Richardson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sex discrimination in benefits for military spouses violated the Constitution, and allowed the spouses of military women to receive the same benefits as did the spouses of men in the military.

Fast Facts: Frontiero v. Richardson

  • Case Argued: Jan. 17, 1973
  • Decision Issued: May 14, 1973
  • Petitioner: Sharron Frontiero, a lieutenant in the United States Air Force
  • Respondent: Elliot Richardson, Secretary of Defense
  • Key Question: Did a federal law, requiring different qualification criteria for male and female military spousal dependency, discriminate against woman and thereby violate the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Brennan, Douglas, White, Marshall, Stewart, Powell, Burger, Blackmun
  • Dissenting: Justice Rehnquist
  • Ruling: The Court ruled that the statute required "dissimilar treatment for men and women who are similarly situated," violating the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause and its implied equal protection requirements.

Military Husbands

Frontiero v. Richardson found unconstitutional a federal law that required different criteria for male spouses of military members to receive benefits, as opposed to female spouses.

Sharon Frontiero was a U.S. Air Force lieutenant who tried to get dependent benefits for her husband. Her request was denied. The law said that male spouses of women in the military could only get benefits if the man relied on his wife for more than half of his financial support. However, female spouses of men in the military automatically were entitled to dependent benefits. A male serviceman did not have to show that his wife relied on him for any of her support.

Sex Discrimination or Convenience?

The dependent benefits would have included an increased living quarters allowance as well as medical and dental benefits. Sharon Frontiero did not show that her husband relied on her for more than one half of his support, so her application for dependent benefits was denied. She contended that this distinction between male and female requirements discriminated against servicewomen and violated the Due Process Clause of the Constitution.

The Frontiero v. Richardson decision noted that U.S. statute books were "laden with gross, stereotyped distinctions between the sexes." See Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 685 (1977). The Alabama district court whose decision Sharon Frontiero appealed had commented on the administrative convenience of the law. With a vast majority of service members being male at the time, surely it would be an extreme administrative burden to require each man to demonstrate that his wife relied upon him for more than half of her support.

In Frontiero v. Richardson, the Supreme Court pointed out that not only was it unfair to burden women and not men with this extra proof, but men who could not offer similar proof about their wives would still receive benefits under the current law.

Legal Scrutiny

The Court concluded:

By according differential treatment to male and female members of the uniformed services for the sole purpose of achieving administrative convenience, the challenged statutes violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment insofar as they require a female member to prove the dependency of her husband. Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 690 (1973).

Justice William Brennan authored the decision, noting that women in the U.S. faced pervasive discrimination in education, the job market and politics. He concluded that classifications based on sex should be subjected to strict judicial scrutiny, just like classifications based on race or national origin. Without strict scrutiny, a law would only have to meet a "rational basis" test instead of a "compelling state interest test." In other words, strict scrutiny would require a state to show why there is a compelling state interest for the discrimination or sex classification, instead of the much easier to meet test of some rational basis for the law.

However, in Frontiero v. Richardson only a plurality of justices agreed about strict scrutiny for gender classifications. Although a majority of the justices agreed that the military benefits law was a violation of the Constitution, the level of scrutiny for gender classifications and questions of sex discrimination remained undecided in this case.

Frontiero v. Richardson was argued before the Supreme Court in January 1973 and decided in May 1973. Another significant Supreme Court case the same year was the Roe v. Wade decision regarding state abortion laws.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Napikoski, Linda. "Frontiero v. Richardson." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Napikoski, Linda. (2020, August 26). Frontiero v. Richardson. Retrieved from Napikoski, Linda. "Frontiero v. Richardson." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 1, 2023).