Introduction

“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” 

“As women achieve power, the barriers will fall. As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things, and we’ll all be better off for it.” 

Explanation 

These famous words were spoken and embodied by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an icon and hero of the gender equality movement in the United States. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, fondly known as RBG, was the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court, and the first Jewish woman. Justice Ginsburg gained the affectionate nickname “The Notorious RBG” in response to her legacy of breaking barriers and silences in the Supreme Court, especially in defense of women’s rights and social justice. RBG is an inspiration and a leader to many who fight for just equality. 

RBG was a steadfast dissenter who spoke out against gender discrimination and the disempowerment of women, especially when she was the only woman in the Supreme Court. She used her legal knowledge to reach her own conclusions and changed the course of history by speaking up for justice, even when everyone else was remaining silent. 

The History

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933 to Jewish parents who had immigrated to the United States. RBG attended Cornell University, where she met her life partner. She attended Harvard and Columbia as one of the few female law students and gave birth to two children. Despite graduating from Columbia at the top of her class, no law firm would hire her because she was a woman and a mother of young children. After passionate advocacy from her law professors, RBG entered the legal profession as a law clerk, eventually becoming a professor at Rutgers Law School in 1963. 

At that time, she was among fewer than 20 other female law professors in the United States. RBG received tenure at Rutgers and later taught at Columbia Law School, where she was the first woman granted tenure. She also co-founded The Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first law journal to focus on women’s rights, and co-authored the first law school textbook on sex discrimination cases. RBG had experienced gender discrimination firsthand and decided to use her legal excellence to drive social change. 

RBG joined the American Civil Liberties Union and, in 1972, co-founded the Women’s Rights Project. As its director and primary legal representative, she won five Supreme Court cases and convinced the court that gender discrimination was unconstitutional for the first time in history. 

RBG’s strategy of representing men in issues of gender equality successfully brought the court’s attention to the severity of gender discrimination. For example, in 1975, RBG represented a male plaintiff whose wife had died during childbirth. The law stated that only widows, not widowers, were entitled to their spouse’s Social Security survivor benefits because of the assumption that men were the breadwinners of the family. In this case, RBG’s plaintiff, Wiesenfeld, had made less money than his wife. She argued that this was gender discrimination and won the case with a unanimous vote from the court. 

RBG brought the issue of constitutional gender discrimination to the court in the landmark case Craig v. Boren in 1976. RBG represented a college-aged male plaintiff who was upset that women could buy beer at age 18, while men had to wait until age 21. Her argument that gender discrimination needed a higher degree of attention, or “scrutiny,” in the U.S. court system convinced the all-male panel of judges to change the drinking age to 21 for women, and more importantly, agree to take matters of gender inequality more seriously. Her work is why women are now protected by the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. 

RBG was rewarded for her legal brilliance in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals and again in 1993 when President Bill Clinton appointed her as Supreme Court Justice. During her time on the Supreme Court bench, RBG wrote many famous dissents and opinions in landmark cases, especially in defense of women’s rights. Three years after joining the Supreme Court, RBG wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia. The Virginia Military Institute had been an all-male school until 1996, when Justice Ginsburg led the court in ruling that the school had to accept women for admission. RBG argued that generalizations about women and about what is most appropriate for women only serve to deny them opportunities. RBG spent the rest of her life on the Supreme Court and remained a force of justice until her death in 2020.

Legacy

RBG is the reason women have certain social rights. Her legal advocacy gave women the right to open a bank account without a man, sign a mortgage without a man, serve on a jury, legally contest gender discrimination in employment, and work while pregnant or raising children. 

RBG envisioned a world where women like herself could dream and achieve freely. She advocated for gender equality in a profound sense, saying that “Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.” To imagine a world where women could shape society was a radical act, but RBG imagined and represented it.

Despite being a renowned inspiration and icon, RBG was not interested in fame. She said she wanted to be remembered as “someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”  Through the use of her intelligence, wisdom, and integrity, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made our society a better and more just world for women and all citizens. Her legacy inspires us all to use our abilities to change society for the better.

    Learn More

    1. Julie Cohen and Betsy West, 2018, “RBG,” Magnolia Pictures. RBG Movie.
    2. BBC News, 2020, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg in pictures and in her own words.”
    3. University of Richmond, New American History, 2020, “Remembering the Notorious RBG.” RBG Learning Resources.
    4. History.com, 2020, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg History.

    Think Further

    1. What lasting influences does Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy have on our lives?
    2. Why was Ruth Bader Ginsburg an important person in U.S. history?
    3. Why is representation important in the Supreme Court?

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