Updated: Mar 29, 2021
This women’s history month as we contemplate the work that has been done to achieve gender equity and the work we have yet to do, one name stands out: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Drawing upon her own life experience of unjust treatment due to her gender, Ginsburg fought fiercely throughout her storied career on behalf of women (and men) seeking equal treatment under the law. She experienced many instances of discrimination. After becoming pregnant with her first child, she was demoted from her job. On entering Harvard law school, the Dean of the law school asked the female students of the entering class why they were taking up the places of hardworking men. After graduating from law school tied first in her class, she struggled to get a job. Despite glowing reviews, judges were resistant to hiring a woman for a clerkship. She was given unequal pay for her work as a professor because she was told that her husband’s salary meant that she didn’t need equal compensation. Each of these experiences drove Ginsburg to fight for women’s rights, up to the very highest court in the land.
In 1971, she wrote the brief for the supreme court case Reed vs. Reed, which sought to overturn a law that gave preferential treatment to male relatives in estate cases. This was the first case argued in front of the supreme court based on gender discrimination, and it was a landmark win. Ginsberg, in her brief, credited Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray even though they didn’t work on the case, because of the intellectual groundwork they laid in the field of feminist thought. Hundreds of laws were changed because of this ruling, as it laid the groundwork for the court to consider the unequal treatment of men and women under the law.
In 1972, Ruth Bader Ginsburg founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, and later served as general counsel. She continued to work on the Women’s Rights Project until 1981 when she was appointed to the DC circuit appeals court after being nominated by President Jimmy Carter.
In 1973, Ginsburg argued amicus (literally a friend of the court) on the case of Frontiero v. Richardson, because of her experience with Reed v. Reed prior. Her testimony lasted only 10 minutes yet was forceful and concise. This case established the illegality of the military giving unequal treatment to men and women regarding benefit compensation. In her brief to the court, Ginsberg said, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
In 1975, Ginsburg illustrated to the courts and the world that gender discrimination is a double-edged sword, hurting both women and men in the process. In the case of Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, a widower was being denied social security benefits that were regularly given to widows with dependent children. This case directly challenged the gendered stereotypes baked into the law that saw men as breadwinners and women as homemakers and caregivers and helped reverse the legalized discrimination men and women faced due to gender.
In 1976, Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed an amicus and sat with counsel for the case of Craig v. Boren, which established that “immediate scrutiny” must be applied to laws under the 14th amendment, when the state tries to establish different applications of the law because of gender. This case overturned an Oklahoma state drinking law that enforced different drinking ages for men and women. This was a landmark case in that it heightened the standard of judicial review for cases of gender equality.
In 1993, she was appointed to the Supreme Court under a nomination by President Bill Clinton. Her fellow justices, speaking of her legacy of fighting for gender equity, called her the “Thurgood Marshall” of the cause of women’s rights. She was the second woman, and the first Jewish American woman appointed to the bench. She became known for her fierce dissents and as a champion of equity.
In 1996, Ginsburg authored the court’s opinion on the case of The United States v. Virginia, which overturned a policy of male-only admission to the Virginia Military Institute. Later, she was able to tour the campus and meet some of the female cadets who had directly benefitted from the court’s ruling, allowing them to pursue their dreams. The Virginia Military Institute was the last public male-only institution in the United States, and the case firmly established precedent preventing any institution denial “to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature — equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy is felt across the spectrum of everyday life--from the ability of women to apply for their own bank accounts or credit cards without their husband or father co-signing, to the equal application of tax exemptions, to protections and equal pay for women in the workforce, to the ability to legally marry whomever one loves. She was an indomitable spirit, and someone whose tenacious fight for what she believed in inspires us every day. In her words, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you."
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