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The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg transcended her position as a United States Supreme Court Justice to a national icon. Justice Ginsburg dedicated her career to advancing the law toward gender equality whether she was arguing before the highest court or seated on the other side of the bench. Her gently spoken yet fiery legal analyses distinguished her as a force to be reckoned with. To women and men across the United States and around the world, her death left more than just an empty Supreme Court seat. It symbolized yet another downturn in women’s advancement toward gender equality. In employment, education, healthcare, and society at large, both gender- and sex-based harassment and discrimination permeate. Looking back on Justice Ginsburg’s life and legacy can help inform us on how to move toward a brighter future.
Unsurprisingly, as a young woman entering law school in the 1950s, Justice Ginsburg faced a brunt of discrimination based on her sex and gender. She entered law school 14 months after her first child was born, balancing law school, motherhood, and eventually caring for her husband through his battle with cancer. Being one of nine women in her Harvard Law School class of over 550, Justice Ginsburg’s attendance was not something to be celebrated by the institution. Rather, the women were seen to have stolen their spots from more deserving men. Professors and even the Dean made a point of harassing Justice Ginsburg and her peers for taking up space they did not believe was meant for women.
After transferring to Columbia Law School for her final year, Justice Ginsburg graduated at the top of her class. Nonetheless, in the eyes of various New York law firms, the honor and prestige of her education were not enough to sway their bias against women. She was not offered a job following her graduation. It was not until one of her former Columbia professors, Albert Sacks, threatened to withhold future clerks from US District Court Judge Edmond L. Palmieri that she was offered a two-year clerkship. Once her clerkship was over, Justice Ginsburg was offered a job at several law firms, but always with a catch: her salary would be much lower than her male-counterparts’.
Consequently, Justice Ginsburg returned to Columbia Law School where she began working on a comparative law project on civil procedure. This project required her to spend time in Sweden, a far more progressive and feminist country than the US. Perhaps her look into this feminist world, informed by her own experiences of discrimination, influenced what Justice Ginsburg would do next.
After Columbia and New York University refused to hire her, Justice Ginsburg began teaching at Rutgers Law School in 1963. There, the issue of unequal pay followed her. Justice Ginsburg was told that she would be paid less because her husband earned a good wage. Joining the other women on staff, Justice Ginsburg and her colleagues filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the university for discrimination and won. Nevertheless, Justice Ginsburg was well-aware that discrimination begets discrimination and hid her second pregnancy from the university.
In the late 1960s, she began volunteering with the American Civil Liberties Union to handle sex and gender discrimination cases. Following the work of Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray, Justice Ginsburg wrote her first winning brief in the case Reed v. Reed where she successfully convinced the Court to apply the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection under the law” to gender discrimination.
This began Justice Ginsburg’s pursuit to convince the courts that gender discrimination not only existed, but was an issue worth its attention. Her strategy in advancing the law was to dismantle discrimination brick by brick. She hoped that with each case, brief, and oral argument the courts themselves would begin to dismantle their own ideas about gender discrimination and expand their thinking on the issue. She strategically represented men in gender discrimination cases as a way to appeal to the men on the Court: gender discrimination harmed them, too.
In 1972, Justice Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project while also beginning teaching at Columbia Law School, being the first woman offered tenure there. With a path cleared by the trailblazers who came ahead of her, Justice Ginsburg successfully pushed gender equality onto the ACLU’s official agenda. In the following years, she won five of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court, earning her national recognition for her tact and intellect in the law:
- In Frontiero v. Richardson, she represented Sharron Frontiero, a lieutenant in the US Air Force whose husband was denied spousal benefits which were automatically given to women.
- In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, one of Justice Ginsburg’s favorite cases, she represented a widower who was denied collection of social security benefits to care for his newborn baby after his wife died in childbirth.
- Similarly, in Califano v. Goldfarb, she represented a widower who was denied survivor’s benefits after his wife passed away.
- In Duren v. Missouri, she argued that by automatically exempting women from jury service throughout the state, her client was denied his constitutional right to a trial by a jury chosen fairly from the community.
- Lastly, in Edwards v. Healy, she challenged a Louisiana law that exempted women from serving on juries unless they explicitly notified the court they wanted to serve.
Working her way toward her final triumph, Justice Ginsburg left the ACLU when she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Thirteen years later, she was nominated as an associate justice to the United States Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton. Justice Ginsburg was only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
As a Supreme Court Justice, she carried her personal and professional experiences to the other side of the bench. Justice Ginsburg not only unified the liberal block of the Court, she transformed the Court’s decisions, and dissents, into something exciting. Most notably, she wrote the Court’s 1996 decision in a landmark gender equality case, United States v. Virginia, which struck down the male-only admission policy at the Virginia Military Institute. Not only did the Court’s decision open the door for women into the institution, it established a new legal standard for sex discrimination cases.
A decade later, and now the only woman serving on the Court, Justice Ginsburg wrote and delivered aloud her scathing dissent in Ledbetter v. The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Lilly Ledbetter sued her employer for paying her less than her men-colleagues in comparable jobs.
So began Justice Ginsburg’s legacy of striking, pointed, and ferocious dissents. She not only stuck by her interpretation of the law, ensuring that the Court understood their errors, she called upon Congress to legislate the remedies. A few years after Ledbetter lost her case, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law; Justice Ginsburg hung a signed copy of the law in her office. This was not the only legislation that Justice Ginsburg influenced. While with the ACLU, Justice Ginsburg and her colleagues, Susan Deller Ross among them, pushed to have pregnancy discrimination recognized as a form of sex discrimination. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, which amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Justice Ginsburg’s legacy on the Court spanned generations. Despite the challenges of pursing an education in law at an Ivy League school, all while navigating new motherhood and caring for her husband, Justice Ginsburg rejected the misogynistic, prescribed gender stereotypes that were around her. She convinced courts, legislators, and the American people alike that gender inequality and the discriminatory stereotypes that it creates not only harms all people, but is an issue that all people should care about.
To women and men across the United States, Justice Ginsburg’s legacy will live in a form of infamy. Looking forward, it is easy to lose hope. With women’s bodies being legislated and people’s gender being invalidated, we will surely miss Justice Ginsburg’s presence on the Court. Reflecting on her life and experiences informs us that a brighter future is always within reach. Her legacy encourages us to keep on fighting for the advancement of sex- and gender-equity, even in the face of adversity.