The anguished cry rose across the country with the news that the legendary, beloved Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had lost her final battle. She fought determinedly and won the first skirmishes, but cancer’s relentless invasion ultimately overcame her body.
She must have suffered during the last few years with several surgeries complicated by three broken ribs, but she refused to let such inconveniences interrupt her work. Thanks to her crusade against the mistreatment of women and minorities, RBG changed the lives of all Americans. We can rejoice that Ginsburg was celebrated during her lifetime for her remarkable achievements. Many artists and great minds die in obscurity, deprived of the satisfaction of knowing their works would be widely acclaimed.
Ruth was a barrier-breaker and a high-achiever. She was among the first women admitted to Harvard Law School. When Marty, her husband, got a job in New York, she moved with him and completed her law studies at Columbia. During her last year she made Law Review and finished at the top of her class, while simultaneously caring for her baby and Marty, stricken with cancer.
Her professors from both Harvard and Columbia recommended her for a clerkship on the Supreme Court. But Justice Frankfurter, a good friend of theirs, would not consider her because he refused to hire a woman. This was not the first nor the last of continual rebuffs. Each one increased her sensitivity to the abuse of marginalized groups, especially women.
How many women born 50 years ago or less understand how inequality made women’s lives and aspirations radically different from those of men? How many know that until the 1970s, when old laws were struck down and new laws began to change the culture, women were rarely if ever seen in corporate boardrooms, in the houses of Congress, state legislatures or the courts? They were prohibited from serving on juries (so they never could be judged by juries of their peers) and often were not hired or promoted in order to protect jobs for men.
Women suffered domestic inequality as well. It grew from a culture that didn’t question the unproved assumption that women have to be protected because they are weak— essentially inferior to men. Inequality was not confined to the home. The premise that women are dependent on men was also embedded in the entire American legal system. Not until the first two women in history— Sandra Day O’Connor first, followed by Ginsburg— were appointed to the Supreme Court and gained the power to challenge those laws, did the barriers that were holding women back begin to crumble.
Even before Ginsburg became an Associate Justice at the Supreme Court, however, she argued five landmark cases before it in less than a decade. Her victories in these cases during the 70s transformed women’s constitutional status.
Ginsburg’s primary goal was to equate discrimination against sex to offenses against race, applying the Fourteenth Amendment to both. In Frontiero v. Richardson she maintained that
Sex like race is a visible, immutable characteristic bearing no necessary relationship to ability. Sex like race has been made the basis for unjustified or at least unproved assumptions, concerning an individual’s potential to perform or to contribute to society.
Ginsburg’s work has made it possible for women to no longer be singled out because of their sex and treated differently from men under the law. Ginsburg taught, for example, that alimony and shorter work hours are actually harmful to women because they enable dependency. Shorter work hours also mean lesser jobs for women and less pay.
Ginsburg understood that sex-role stereotyping can also adversely affect the dominant sex. Men are in a double bind: they do not benefit from all the talents of their wives, they have to work harder and they miss out on quality time with their children.
Justice Thurgood Marshall and his tactics served as a model for Justice Ginsburg in her crusade for women’s equality. Marshall led the battle for civil rights in the Supreme Court. His strategy of achieving small, incremental changes culminated in the sweeping change of the Civil Rights Act. The achievements in civil rights and women’s rights of Justices Marshall and Ginsburg brought about radical and profound change in American society.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg richly deserves the hagiographic reverence accorded to her. A diminutive woman, she presumably had tiny feet, but no one has feet large enough to fit into her shoes. She will be sorely missed, and those who follow her have an obligation to preserve her legacy and build on it.