Philadelphia’s Central High School has many distinctions. Founded in 1836, it is the nation’s second-oldest public high school.
It was long considered the crown jewel of Philadelphia’s public school system, accepting only the city’s best and brightest. Central’s alumni list is filled with prominent thinkers (Alain Locke), artistic luminaries (Thomas Eakins), star academics (Noam Chomsky), and entertainment icons (Larry Fine).
But before the 1980s, the alumni rolls lacked one thing:
From its beginning, Central did not admit female students. In 1848, the school district established a counterpart institution called the Philadelphia High School for Girls. And so the status quo remained for well over a century.
The first major challenge to Central’s all-male admissions policy surfaced in the mid-1970s, when a student named Susan Vorchheimer sued the school district.
She claimed the policy violated the 14th Amendment, creating a separate and unequal state of play in Philly schools.
A federal district court judge agreed with Vorchheimer. But that decision was reversed by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the presence of Girls High guaranteed equal opportunity to female students.
In 1977, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court — where it ended with a whimper.
The high court deadlocked 4-4 (with Rehnquist abstaining). That meant the 3rd circuit’s ruling remained in place — along with Central’s single-sex policy.
In the early 80s, another legal challenge arose.
This time, three female applicants — Elizabeth Newberg, Pauline King, and Jessica Bonn — sued the school district. Like Vorchheimer, these litigants challenged the constitutionality of Central’s admissions policy.
But this new trio also sued under state law, claiming Central’s single-sex rule violated the equal rights amendment in the Pennsylvania Constitution. The case ended up in Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court, in front of a judge named William M. Marutani.
On Aug. 30, 1983, Marutani handed down a historic decision: Central High School had to admit female applicants.
The educational opportunities at Girls High were “materially unequal” to those at Central, Marutani wrote.
This was a bit of deja vu. After all, a lower court had just ruled the same thing in the 1970s — only to see its decision flipped on appeal.
But this time, the Philadelphia school board decided to end the fight.
In October, the school board voted 5-3 not to appeal Marutani’s decision. An alumni activist attempted to launch his own class-action lawsuit, but that went nowhere. Central was now co-educational.
“I think Central High is one of the great high schools in the country, and I don’t think its excellence depends on being an all-male bastion,” school board member Herman Mattleman told the Daily News. “We’re in a new era now.”
Although the initial lawsuit involved three students, they were soon joined by three other young women: Karen Seif, Rachel Gafney, and Michele Hangley.
And on Sept. 12, 1983, the “Central 6” walked into Philadelphia’s most prominent high school together and enrolled.
“I decided I wanted to be one of the first, and I wanted to make it easier for the girls following me,” Hangley, 16, told the Inquirer.
In an Inquirer retrospective 15 years later, the six pioneering students recounted tense and hostile moments as they first walked Central’s halls. Some boys muttered taunts. But others went out of their way to welcome the new admits.
“It was kind of weird because it was like being on stage every moment,” Elizabeth Newberg, one of the three litigants, recalled.
A few months into the school year, another 22 girls enrolled at Central. Despite some alumni protests — and a walk out by about 100 male students — Central’s co-educational era was here to stay.
Today, the women who broke that barrier are in their mid-50s. Hangley became a lawyer and was recently was elected to Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas.
Judge Hangley now sits on the court that ordered her admission to Central.