“Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”― Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The United States of America as well as the entire legal world were left mourning after Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the iconic liberal judge of the Supreme Court, passed away in Washington DC after a prolonged battle with pancreatic cancer. The Brooklyn-born iron lady was 87 and she served uninterruptedly at the apex court for 27 years since her appointment by then president Bill Clinton in 1993.
Deaths of Supreme Court judges are always a moment of gloom because they are people who scale the heights of accomplishment with decades of hard work of the brain. They also bring notable changes in the lives of people through their landmark judgments. The judiciary is often viewed as that pillar of the democracy that saves its balance and the top judges are seen as its conscience-keepers.
Ginsburg or ‘RBG’ as she was popularly known, was no exception. But the Jewish woman was perhaps more special because of her mammoth contribution to the justice system and the causes of equality in the society. RBG’s name was something which was not confined to the realms of law and its practitioners but even the common man was aware of her greatness. The fact that several of them assembled outside the Supreme Court building following her demise on September 18 made evident the fact that Ginsburg had indeed made a difference in their lives.
It will be wrong to evaluate Ginsburg as someone who only fought for women. As the Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld case of 1975 showed, Ginsburg fought in favor of the widower father who was denied the Social Security benefits for which he applied after his wife passed away at childbirth and left him as the sole custodian of their newborn. One of Ginsburg’s arguments was that the Act not only discriminated against Wiesenfeld for being a widower but it was also not giving men the equal opportunity as women to care for their children.
Before that, in 1973, too, Ginsburg made a similar claim and prevailed over her opponents. US Air Force lieutenant Sharon Frontiero, 23, sued the force citing sexual discrimination in 1971 after she was denied the same military allowances that her male counterparts got. Then came the case Frontiero v. Richardson of 1973 (it was the first that Ginsburg argued before the SC). While Sharon had a dependent husband in Joseph, the couple had to prove that it was indeed the case while in case of the male servicemembers did not have to do anything extra to prove that their wives were dependent on them.
In came Ginsburg who represented the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae. She argued that gender discrimination ends up hurting men as well. She asked the court: “Did the framers of the 14th Amendment regard racial [discrimination] as odious? Because a person’s skin color bears no necessary relationship to ability. Similarly…a person’s sex bears no necessary relationship to ability.”
RBG’s crusade against inequality was strategic. Her concept of gender equality was not limited to women’s rights and she successfully showcased that discrimination was something that affected both genders and many of her arguments showed that discrimination eventually hit families and not just individuals. This was something of a masterstroke by the liberal justice at a time when equal rights of both men and women were seen a unique progressivism.
Yet, amid her crusade for universal justice, Ginsburg undoubtedly promoted women’s cause and paved the way for them. In fact, she was called the “notorious RBG” by her affectionate followers and inspired many women to take up a career in law. It was not easy for a woman to make a place for herself in a male-dominated profession but she did it with style and challenged injustice against women using the highest legal platform. Here are some ways in which Ginsburg did her bit for the cause of women’s rights and justice:
Founding the Women’s Rights Project: During her days as the lawyer at the ACLU, Ginsburg founded the Women’s Rights Project (WRP) in the early 1970s which oversaw several cases of gender discrimination and many of which focused on financial issues. Many of the victories that Ginsburg achieved in her glorious career in law resulted in noteworthy advances in the story of women’s financial equality. Through litigation, advocacy of public education and community outreach, the WRP empowers women who are poor, immigrant and are of color and faced gender inequality.
The WRP has carried out systematic legal reform through the courts, especially in areas of equality for women and their economic rights. The landmark Reed v. Reed case of 1971 was closely identified with the WRP, thanks to RBG who shortly thereafter became the director of the project. The case saw the constitutionality of discrimination on the basis of sex getting challenged as the Supreme Court held for the first time that any classification on the basis of sex was not constitutional. The case shot down an Idaho law that said men were to be favored over women as administrators of an estate.
Championing women’s right to abortion: This is a favorite issue for all liberals to fight for and RBG was no exception. Throughout her stint at the Supreme Court, Ginsburg was firm on her stand supporting women to have abortion. Ginsburg gave an eye-catching defense of women’s right to choose in the Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt case of 2016 in which the apex court ruled that Texas could not restrict abortion services that put an unjustifued buren on women seeking an abortion. In her concurrence which to which no other justice signed, RBG wote: “Many medical procedures, including childbirth, are far more dangerous to patients” and that the Texas law putting a curb on abortions was “beyond rational belief”. Her scathing document was seen as a staggering victory for women’s reproductive rights.
Vouching for women’s rights to have equal pay: Ginsburg, who supported equal pay for women as an attorney, believed the same as justice and her opportunity to make an impact on the issue came in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. case of 2007. In this case that resembled the 1973 case involving Sharon Frontiero, Lilly Ledbetter sued the Alabama-based tire and rubber company alleging that she was discriminated against in terms of pay as her male companions got bigger paychecks by the end of her service despite them having started at the same salary. She moved the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which is responsible for enforcing civil rights laws against workplace discrimination. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court in 2007 after the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit changed the original ruling, saying Ledbetter made her complaint far too late and not when her first discriminatory paycheck was disbursed.
The top court said employees could not challenge the pay discrimination if the original differentiating pay was not within the statue of limitations period. But Ginsburg was not okay with the stand and she read out a dissent from the bench — a rare occurrence. She was of the opinion that pay discriminations are often more difficult to identify than others because they often take place in small increments over large periods of time. Her dissent did not go in vain as less than two years’ time, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was signed into law by former president Barack Obama. Under this law, discriminator pay or moves can be filed as complaints without strict time limitations. The law prevailed over the Supreme Court’s decision to side with Ginsburg’s dissent.
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