The Impact of Affirmative Action on Women

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina and Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard has put an end to race-based affirmative action, the practice of favoring individuals, particularly in hiring or education, belonging to groups regarded as disadvantaged or subject to discrimination to remedy a long history of discrimination. As members of a feminist organization committed to promoting gender and racial justice, it is our responsibility to understand how affirmative action impacts both racial and gender equity. Although most new stories regarding affirmative action address race-based programs, it must be noted that the demographic that has clearly benefited from affirmative action throughout history has been white women.

As a female student seeking a university degree, I have directly benefited from colleges working to make their student bodies more diverse. I and all my female cousins attend the College of William and Mary which, despite being open for 330 years, only began educating women a little over a century ago. Once women were admitted to the college, it was crucial that the William & Mary admissions officers work diligently to ensure that the university’s student body accurately reflected the gender demographics of the country. This was especially true because many students at the college did not support the admittance of women and some in the class of 1918 lamented that they would be “the last class to graduate from the old college before it is defiled by coeducation.” Furthermore, a local newspaper declared that William & Mary’s education of women would be a detriment as the admission of women came “at the price of the womanhood Virginia had cherished as a sacred thing.”

Despite these objections, the William & Mary admissions team made sure to remedy the history of discrimination against women in higher education, and now, 105 years later, female students make up 58% of the college’s student body. This statistic is also representative of national trends where women in the United States now outpace men in earning 4-year degrees. Promoting women’s access to college degrees is incredibly important for the economic advancement of women, particularly because college degrees improve individuals’ economic outcomes later in life. This is especially true for people such as my cousins and me who study accounting and international relations, job fields that generally require a high level of education, education that would not be available to us without the commitment of our college to remedying its history of discrimination against female students.

However, it is important to note that the Supreme Court’s decisions in the Students for Fair Admission cases could jeopardize women’s access to higher education. Now that cases brought by conservative activists have caused the Supreme Court to revoke the ability of admissions officers to consider race when admitting students to their universities, it is possible that gender-based affirmative action will be next on the chopping block. If this were to happen, it could lead to a decrease in women being admitted to universities and would therefore limit the ability of many women to access connections and resources that help them obtain employment and higher salaries that are often associated with college degrees.

Feminists should keep a watchful eye on a Supreme Court apparently determined to end efforts to achieve diversity and equity.

Brigid Rowdon, Government Relations Intern

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