Frontiero v. Richardson

411 U.S. 677 (1973)

Quick Summary

Sharron Frontiero (plaintiff), an Air Force lieutenant, sought dependent benefits for her husband but was denied under existing statutes differentiating between male and female service members. Frontiero filed suit against Secretary of Defense Richardson (defendant), alleging sex discrimination in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

The dispute centered on whether this difference in treatment constituted unconstitutional discrimination against servicewomen. The Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, deeming the statutes discriminatory and violative of due process as they imposed unequal burdens based on gender.

Facts of the Case

Sharron Frontiero (plaintiff), serving in the United States Air Force, sought to claim her husband (plaintiff) as a ‘dependent’ to access increased housing allowances and medical and dental benefits provided to service members with dependents. According to existing law, male service members could claim their wives as dependents without proving actual dependency.

However, female service members like Frontiero could only claim their husbands as dependents by demonstrating the husband’s actual dependency on her for over half of his support. When Frontiero’s application was denied due to her failure to prove this dependency, she challenged the law, asserting it violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment by imposing unequal burdens based on gender.

This case arose against the backdrop of congressional provisions aimed at attracting career personnel in the armed services by offering competitive fringe benefits. Frontiero’s challenge brought to light a gender-based distinction in the statutes that automatically granted benefits for servicemen’s wives but not for servicewomen’s husbands unless dependency was proven. This discrepancy led Frontiero to file suit against the Secretary of Defense, Richardson (defendant), and others, claiming unconstitutional sex discrimination.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Sharron Frontiero applied for increased housing and medical benefits for her husband and was denied.
  2. Frontiero filed suit in federal district court alleging the law violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
  3. The three-judge district court upheld the law, leading to Frontiero’s appeal.
  4. The case was appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the law that allowed servicemen to claim their wives as dependents without proof of actual dependency, but required servicewomen to prove their husbands’ actual dependency, violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment due to gender discrimination.

Rule of Law

Classifications based upon sex are inherently suspect and must be subjected to strict judicial scrutiny. This means that any law making a distinction based on gender must demonstrate an exceedingly persuasive justification for such differentiation.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court agreed that sex-based classifications should be treated with strict scrutiny, similar to classifications based on race, alienage, or national origin. The majority opinion recognized the long history of discrimination against women and noted that sex, like race and national origin, is an immutable characteristic that bears no relation to one’s ability to contribute to society.

The Court found that the administrative convenience argument presented by the government did not justify the gender-based distinction. The government failed to provide concrete evidence that the differential treatment saved money or was administratively necessary.

The Court emphasized that constitutional values outweigh administrative convenience and that arbitrary legislative choices based on sex were forbidden by the Constitution. Therefore, the Court concluded that the statutes unconstitutionally discriminated against servicewomen by requiring them to prove their husbands’ dependency while not imposing a similar burden on servicemen.


The United States Supreme Court reversed the decision of the district court, ruling that the statutes in question violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Court held that by treating male and female service members differently based solely on gender, the statutes imposed unlawful discrimination against servicewomen.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Rehnquist dissented, aligning with Judge Rives’s opinion from the district court which supported the constitutionality of the statutes.

Key Takeaways

  1. Gender-based classifications are subject to strict judicial scrutiny and require an exceedingly persuasive justification.
  2. The administrative convenience does not justify gender discrimination under constitutional law.
  3. The decision established a significant precedent for evaluating laws that establish distinctions based on sex.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What standard of review does the Court apply when a law discriminates on the basis of sex?

The Court subjects laws discriminating on the basis of sex to strict scrutiny. This rigorous standard demands the government prove the discriminatory law is necessary to achieve a compelling state interest, and that it’s narrowly tailored to achieve that specific goal without using less restrictive means.

  • For example: A law mandating only women, not men, take paid leave for child care would likely fail strict scrutiny as it both stereotypes gender roles and is not narrowly tailored to address child care concerns without discrimination.

How does the concept of 'immutable characteristics' impact constitutional equal protection analysis?

When a characteristic is legally considered ‘immutable,’ such as sex or race, any classifications based on it are treated with heightened scrutiny in equal protection analysis. The rationale is that individuals should not be subjected to disparate treatment due to traits they cannot change or that have no bearing on their capabilities or contribution to society.

  • For example: A state’s statute offering business grants specifically to left-handed citizens would be scrutinized because being left-handed is an immutable characteristic that doesn’t necessarily affect business acumen.

What justification must a government provide when creating laws that classify individuals based on sex?

The government must demonstrate an ‘exceedingly persuasive justification’ for a law that classifies based on sex. This involves providing a compelling governmental interest in the differentiation and evidence that the law is precisely tailored to achieve that objective.

  • For example: If the government were to enact a policy that only funds women’s health research, they’d need to convincingly argue this addresses an urgent public health disparity specific to women.


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