The death last Friday of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg left the nation shocked and saddened. We lost a legal giant and icon of the equal rights movement. As her death was announced, my email, text and social media blew up with disbelief and such profound sadness. It was widespread and so deep. Friends described their feelings as sick, hopeless, sad, and devastated to name a few. I spent a good part of the weekend glued to the news, interviews, remembrances, and re-watched the CNN Documentary RBG. I was like a sponge, trying to soak up every detail so it would be cemented in my mind, hoping I would never, could never forget her and her contributions to the American legal system. I felt like I was back in law school, 33 years later, in a constitutional law class as I listened and read about her landmark decisions as a lawyer and then as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court.
Justice Ginsburg’s interest and passion for equal rights is grounded in her own experiences as she entered Harvard Law School in the 1950s. Can you imagine after being admitted having to justify to the Dean of the law school why you were taking up a seat that could have been filled by a male student? It’s appalling and almost sounds like he must have been joking, but it was no joke. After transferring to Columbia in her last year of law school to follow her husband to New York for his work, no law firm would employ her. As she said, “I was Jewish, a woman, and had a 4 year-old child.” Apparently that was a fatal trifecta. Closed out from the private sector, she went into academia at Rutgers Law School and later worked closely with the ACLU.
Armed with her own history and passion for the constitutional principle of the equal citizenship stature of men and women, Justice Ginsburg spent the next decade teaching and collaborating with others to bring the many examples of the barriers to equal rights for women to light and to challenge them. The 1970s brought multiple opportunities to advance equal rights for women (and in one case, men) and chip away at the discriminatory practices that relegated women to second class citizens. This series of victories forced laws to change nationwide. Examples include Reed v. Reed (1971), which stuck down an Idaho law favoring men over women being appointed as executors in estate actions; Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), which barred gender discrimination in giving housing allowances to military members; and Weinberger v. Wiesenfled (1975) which struck down gender discrimination in the award of Social Security survivor’s benefits. She argued six equal rights cases before the Supreme Court and won five. That’s pretty amazing and speaks to her keen mind, attention to detail and ability to persuade.
After her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993, she continued her quest to advance equal rights whenever cases came before the Court. She authored the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, which struck down the Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admission policy as violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. She was in the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges where the court held that the 14th Amendment required states to license and recognize same-sex marriages. As powerful as her majority opinions were, she also became well known for her dissents including her dissent in Shelby County v. Holder (the voting rights case) and famously said, “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”.
You are likely thinking that you did not ask for a constitutional law refresher but I hope that you are as impressed and energized as I am by the strategic work that Justice Ginsburg did to change the law throughout her legal career. Through her decades of dedication to the equal rights of all people she blazed a path and showed girls and women everywhere that they can aspire to be anything they want, do anything they set their minds to and have as much of an impact on the world around them as their male counterparts.
The outpouring of admiration for Justice Ginsburg from all corners on the country and all walks of life reminds us of her amazing contribution to advancing equal rights. More importantly, it is the call to action for all of us to continue her work with the passion and conviction that she had. As Justice Ginsburg wisely said, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Let us continue the fight, her fight, and now our fight.
Betsy Soulé, Executive Director