As I sat to write this article, the body of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was being laid to rest at the U.S. Capitol – the first woman ever to have such an honor. The life and work of only the second female Justice in history to have joined the Supreme Court, was being remembered with three days of ceremonies. As I watched images of hundreds of people gathering in front of the steps of the Supreme Court, waiting their turn to pay their respects, I made the decision to write down some words that might give our IN members a glimpse of her importance.
Even in a country obsessed with stardom, judges, even Supreme Court Justices, are not often viewed as celebrities. Why, then, would an 87-year-old woman be celebrated in movies (yes, more than one movie!), books, t-shirts and mugs, and be adored as the “Notorious RBG”?
Not having been born in the USA, I grew up seeing American society through a Hollywood lens that somewhat distorted reality and made us, foreigners, take it for granted that all American women are strong, confident, outgoing and are free to pursue their own kind of happiness. The distortion is not so much in the fact that American women might enjoy such character, but in the fact that from the Hollywood point of view, it was always so. As if, once women gained the right to vote, back in 1920, it just followed that they also automatically became equal, in every measure, to American men. The truth, as always, is a little more complex.
The Supreme Court, as the name suggests, is the highest court in the nation. Small cases, like who should pay for the dental work of a son of divorced parents or whose responsibility it was to take care of the damages concurred by a fallen tree, are not the kind that will be reviewed by the Supreme Court, unless such a case has morphed into a bigger question about the rights of the American people. In essence, the Supreme Court listens to cases about laws. These are some of the cases argued in the Supreme Court:
- Primary elections should be open to people of all races (Smith v. Allwright – 1944)
- Racially segregated schools violate equal rights (Brown v. Board of Education – 1954).
- Laws should not prohibit inter-racial marriage (Loving v. Virginia – 1967)
- A woman should have the right and privacy to choose what to do with her own body (abortion) (Roe v. Wade – 1973)
- Federal Government should recognize same sex marriages (United States v. Windsor – 2013)
FROM YOUNG LAWYER TO JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT
In the 1970’s, the young lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg, influenced by the Women’s Liberation Movement and her own life experience, decided that to change society’s view of gender rights, she would concentrate in changing the laws. Marches, public demonstrations and discussion of women’s rights could energize and educate the public, but changing laws could make gender equality (men and women having equal rights) available to all Americans, independent of their education and social or economic position.
Her own history had shown her how difficult it was for women to ascend in their careers. She had graduated first in her class at Cornell University, had entered Harvard Law School (one of the nine women accepted in her class of 500 students) and, after transferring to Columbia Law School, graduated tied for first in her class. Nevertheless, when she went looking for a job, in 1959, she found out that prospective employers were not willing to hire a Jewish woman with a small daughter.
Working hard to prove her worth, she first became interested in issues concerning equal gender rights while teaching at Columbia Law School and while working on a research paper in Sweden. In 1972, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The Women’s Rights Project, among hundreds of cased defended in front of the courts, brought 6 cases that were argued by Ginsburg in front of the Supreme Court.
Goodwin Liu, in his opinion piece for The Washington Post, cites Ginsburg herself in describing her belief that “all people should have equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.” (*1) She also believed, as she expressed during her Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing in 1993, that “(…) generally, in our society, real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” (*2)
For this reason, her approach, back in 1972, was to choose cases that, as they were argued in front of the Supreme Court (and won), started to weave themselves together to strengthen gender equality, and change public opinion.
The first one, in 1973, was the case of Sharon Frontiero, who had joined the U.S. Air Force and realized that her male comrades were paid a housing allowance (money to pay for housing) while she wasn’t. The explanation as to why she didn’t receive that allowance was that, being a woman, she was not considered the head of her family, and her husband (if she had one) should be the one to take care of her. As a woman, therefore, she was not considered to have the same financial needs as her male counterparts.
The Women’s Rights Project didn’t just defend women. In 1975, Ginsburg argued the case of a man, Stephen Wiesenfeld, whose wife died just after she gave birth to their child. He decided he would stay at home to take care of the baby, and for that, he applied to get social security benefits for himself and his son. This money, usually available to a widower, was denied to this widow because he was not a woman.
Ginsburg worked with the Women’s Rights Project until 1980, when she was appointed by President Carter to a seat on the D.C. Circuit Appeals Court. Then, in 1993, President Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court.
While serving as a Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg heard many cases. One of them is considered to be the cap or crown of the work that she started in 1972 with the Women’s Rights Project. Lilly Ledbetter worked for a company for several years before she found out that she wasn’t paid the same salary as the men, for equal work. In 2007, the Supreme Court, composed of 9 justices, decided against Ledbetter in a 5 to 4 vote. They decided that she had waited too long to make a complaint about her pay and had therefore lost her chance to have it fixed. Ginsburg, of course, didn’t agree with the majority of the justices and wrote in her opinion (dissent) that it was unfair to expect Lilly to act at a time when she didn’t even know that she was being paid less. She then asked, in her dissent, that Congress should step in and change the laws, so that cases like Lilly Ledbetter’s could be solved fairly. In 2008, just after Barack Obama became president, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act became law.
The Justices in the Supreme Court present the opinion of the majority or the dissention of the minority in written form at the time the result of a case is presented. Justice Ginsburg, in the last several years, became well known for her opinions and dissents and soon drew the attention of a new generation of Americans interested in social and legal issues. It all started in 2013, when a young law student took notice of the wording in a dissent written by Justice Ginsburg. It was a case in which a law created in 1965 to protect voting rights, designated a group to review any change in requirements to voter’s eligibility (what a county or state could ask from citizens to identify them as legal voters) – a preclearance. The Supreme Court voted that the law was no longer necessary, but Ginsburg understood that the law was indeed still important and necessary. She wrote: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet”(*3). Soon social media was abuzz with excitement about her opinions and young fans likened her to rapper “Notorious B.I.G.”. She became “Notorious R.B.G.” and soon t-shirts and mugs started to appear with slogans like “There is no truth without Ruth”. She was by then already in her 80’s and, if at first the attention of this young generation baffled her, it also gave her much enjoyment.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be very much missed, not only by her fans but also by millions of people who, while perhaps unaware of her life and work, are still able to enjoy the fruits of her labor.
(*1) Liu, Goodwin. “Ginsburg’s vision led us to a better America. We can do the same”. The Washington Post; Sept 20, 2020.
(*2) Ruth Bader Ginsburg Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing, as seen in the documentary “RBG”. 2018, 98min.
(*3) Vance, Joyce White. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lost Her Battle to Save Voting Rights. Here’s How We Can Take Up the Fight and Honor Her Legacy. Time. Sept21, 2020.
Barnes, Robert & Fletcher, Michael. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice and Legal Pioneer for Gender Equality, Dies at 87”. The Washington Post. Sept 18, 2020.
Barnes, Roberts; Contrera, Jessica; Marimow, Ann E. and Schmid, Samantha. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg eulogized as a ‘rock star’ and ‘fighter’ while mourners gather to say goodbye. The Washington Post. Sept 23, 2020.
Newkirk II, Vann R. “How Shelby County v. Holder Broke America”. The Atlantic. July 10, 2018.
Senior, Jennifer. “Review: ‘Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’. The New York Times. Oct 25, 2015.