When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from Columbia University Law School in 1959 and started her legal career, women in the U.S. were essentially second-class citizens, both “protected” and contained by the paternalism enshrined in state and federal law. Ginsburg, who died on Friday at the age of 87, helped dismantle this built-in misogyny, creating a much more solid foundation from which to fight the multiple attacks on women’s rights we are facing today.
Part of what propelled Ginsburg toward the fight for equal protection for women under the law was her own experience of discrimination. As one of only nine women at Harvard Law School in 1956, the dean asked why she and her classmates were taking up seats that could be filled by men. After leaving Harvard, and graduating at the top of her class at Columbia Law, she was initially rejected from every job she applied to. And after joining the faculty at Rutgers Law School in 1963, she found out her salary was lower than that of her male colleagues and campaigned for equal pay, which resulted in a raise not only for herself, but also for other women at the university. Ginsburg was not the kind of person who was satisfied with improving her own lot in life — she made sure that she was bringing others along with her.
In her decades of legal work at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as a circuit judge, and as a Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg argued many cases that expanded civil rights law and the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to women. “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made,” she famously said, and she made sure that her work reflected that mission.
After founding the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in 1972, she participated in nearly 300 gender discrimination cases, six of which went before the then all-male Supreme Court (five of which she won). One of her major strategies at the time was to use men as plaintiffs to show the justices that any type of gender discrimination makes no sense. During this era of turbulent activity for Ginsburg and the ACLU, many laws that assumed men as breadwinners and heads of the family and women as subordinates and dependents were dismantled, as were notions that women should be “protected” by not entering careers like policing or firefighting — or even doing jury duty. While Ginsburg’s style was steady and methodical — she never considered herself a radical — the sheer volume and impact of her work catalysed a feminist revolution.
Among Ginsburg and her team’s accomplishments in the 1970s: They made sure that men and women get equal preference in estate disputes. They persuaded the court that it’s unconstitutional to apply different standards to military spousal benefits for men and women. They successfully advocated for widowers to get Social Security benefits after a spouse’s death, when at the time only widows could get these benefits. They even persuaded the court to strike down a curious law that set the beer-drinking age in Oklahoma at 18 for women but 21 for men. And, you might have RBG to thank for that pesky jury duty letter — she helped make it easier for women to serve on juries.
The type of discrimination Ginsburg worked against was something she dealt with herself on a daily basis: Her colleagues at the ACLU described in a tribute how annoyed she was when administrators from her son’s school always called her at work when he was in trouble — Ginsburg would remind them that he had two parents.
While things substantially improved for women throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there were reactionary forces at play that made Ginsburg’s subsequent work on the Supreme Court — she stepped on the bench in 1993, only the second female justice in history — incredibly important. Throughout her 27-year tenure on the Supreme Court, she was consistently one of the most liberal justices among a conservative majority, and because of this she wrote relatively few majority opinions. One of the most famous was the mic-dropping United States v. Virginia, which struck down the male-only admission policy at the Virginia Military Institute. When she was part of the majority opinion, she often made connections in her opinions to gender equality, like when she argued that feminism is deeply intertwined with marriage equality in 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges.
However, Ginsburg was arguably best known for her dissenting opinions, which she always presented wearing one of her signature jabots over her judicial robe, and which led to action from other branches of the government. Her passionate 2007 dissent in a pay discrimination case led to the enactment of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, which restored the protection against pay discrimination taken away by a previous court case.
In her later years, RBG became as significant culturally as she had been legally. After law student Shana Knizhnik’s creation of The Notorious RBG meme took off, as a result of her dissent in the 2013 voting rights case Shelby County v. Holder, Ginsburg’s image appeared everywhere from tote bags to dolls to pins. You can’t walk into a local bookstore or browse Etsy without seeing some RBG-themed swag. While some mocked the glib fetishisation of a powerful, complicated woman, it also played an important role in offering an easy point of entry for even young girls to understand the importance of having women in positions of power, and the myriad effects the judiciary has on our daily lives. To many women, this method of honouring Ginsburg was an accessible — and, let’s face it, aesthetically fun — way of honoring the justice’s accomplishments in women’s rights.
Ginsburg, of course, was much more than a feminist meme. She helped usher in an era of greater equality, which affects many of us in ways we don’t even realise, but for which we should always be grateful. Now, with Republicans hellbent on nominating a new justice as soon as possible, it’s important to remember that we cannot let the building blocks of that equality break down. We need to continue her fight.
A quote that has circulated widely on Instagram since Ginsburg’s death reads, “May her memory be a revolution.” It might not have the same visual power as an image of Ginsburg in her justice robes and an off-kilter crown, the word “Notorious” displayed below her jewelled jabot, but it is resonant nonetheless. Even if Ginsburg was not a revolutionary, she has inspired countless women to be just that, and carry on her legacy in ways that will be uniquely their own.
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