Women's History Month - Ruth Bader Ginsburg
March 19, 2021
At a time when women are shaking the foundation of this country, challenging the cultural norms, asserting their role in the economy, and working for equity in political representation, it is important to recognize the women who have brought us to this point, and those who continue to carry women forward.
Joan Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also known as The Notorious RBG, has done more than anyone else in the judicial realm, to advance women’s rights and gender equity.
In the 1970’s, she advocated as a volunteer attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and was a member of its board of directors and one of its general counsel.
After founding the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, she chose six gender discrimination cases to argue before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1979. Rather than seeking one sweeping landmark decision, she methodically sought to shift the views of the all-male Supreme Court at that time by “breaking down the gender equality challenge” into specific “discriminatory statutes,” choosing her plaintiffs carefully and using each case to create a precedent:
Frontiero v. Richardson: Ginsburg argued for the husband of a female military member to have the same dependent status as the wives of male members
Kahn v. Shevin: Ginsburg argued for widowers to have the same Florida property tax exemption as widows
Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld: Ginsburg argued that the Social Security Act should grant the same benefits to a surviving husband and father as were granted to surviving wives and mothers
Edwards v. Healy: Ginsburg argued for women to have equal rights to serve on juries in Louisiana
Califano v. Goldfarb: Ginsburg argued for widowers to have the same access to social security survivor’s benefits as widows
Duren v. Missouri: Ginsburg argued on behalf of a male criminal defendant that the Missouri practice of automatically excluding women from jury service violated his constitutional rights
Winning five of the six cases, she chipped away at legally sanctioned sex discrimination in military, tax and social security benefits, and jury service. Gradually, she persuaded a majority of the all-male Supreme Court that “equality for women is a fundamental right protected by the US Constitution.”
Further, that in four of those six discrimination cases she took on, she represented men who had been deprived of benefits. She argued that husbands or widowers were victims of discrimination, on the basis of sex. Standing before that all-male Supreme Court, she understood that arguing for men whose interests had been harmed by gender discrimination was the best starting point to educate those members on the Supreme Court at that time. Her strategy promoted the understanding of the collective benefits of equality and the harm of gender discrimination.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where she served until her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993.
When she began her legal crusade in the 1960’s and 1970’s, women were treated by law differently from men. There were many state and federal laws restricted what women could do, barring them from jobs, rights and even from jury service. By the time she donned the judicial robes in 1980’s, however, she had already worked a revolution for women’s rights and gender equality in the court systems.
This was never more evident than in 1996 when, as a newer Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg wrote the court's 7-1 opinion declaring that the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) could no longer remain an only male state funded institution. She stated that “most women, indeed most men — would not want to meet the rigorous demands of the VMI.” But “the state,” she said, “could not exclude women who could meet those demands.”
Throughout her career, she was an unlikely pioneer, a diminutive and shy woman, whose soft voice and large glasses hid an intellect and attitude that, as one colleague put it, was "tough as nails."
Before her death in September 2020, she achieved historical advancements for women not by strong-arming or shouting, nor by political gamesmanship. Rather, her approach was positively “zen”.
Instead of trying hopelessly to force a new reality for women into being, she was a driving force that worked within the limits of the present moment, to create meaningful change. And because of her persistence, women today are able to enjoy the well-established rights that are supported by historical precedence - all most notably because of the “Notorious RBG.”