Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, a ruling that continues to resonate not only because of the civil rights struggle it exemplified but because of the timelessness of its message of equal opportunity.
What follows is a sample from the high court’s unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren and found at 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Today, education … is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be available to all on equal terms…. We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.
The decision was a major victory in the fight for racial equality. The opinion’s automatic use of the masculine pronoun, however, indicates that the United States in 1954 still had a long way to go to achieve gender equality.
On the current court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is renowned for using the feminine pronouns “she” and “her” in hypotheticals to describe both the protagonist and antagonist during oral arguments and in written opinions. But the justice most likely to use gender-neutral language was Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., according to a study published in January 2010 in the Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy.