Three of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s most lasting legacies in the fight for equality
Ruth Bader Ginsburg worked to advance equal rights for women long before she was on the Supreme Court. Here are three of her most lasting legacies.
Even in death, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is making history for women.
The Supreme Court associate justice, a driving force for gender equality in the United States who died last week at age 87, will be the first woman to lie in state Friday in the the U.S. Capitol. Thirty-four men have been so honored since 1852.
The honor comes after Ginsburg lay in repose at the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday and Thursday, a final visit to the high court she served for 27 years.
During those decades, Ginsburg helped act as a voice for women – and men – in countless ways, from education to workplace discrimination and health care.
She famously co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU as a lawyer, and brought and argued the cases that led the high court to affirm protections against gender discrimination.
Though it would be impossible to list every triumph that Ginsburg helped achieve, we’re looking back to trace some of the impact she’s had on women’s lives in America.
Here are just some of the contributions she made for women, both on a legal and personal level.
In the 1996 United States v. Virginia case, Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion that it is unconstitutional for schools funded by taxpayer dollars to bar women.
“There is no reason to believe that the admission of women capable of all the activities required of (Virginia Military Institute) cadets would destroy the institute rather than enhance its capacity to serve the ‘more perfect union,’ ” Ginsburg wrote.
Speaking to USA TODAY, women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred described Ginsburg’s opinion in the case as “groundbreaking.”
“She was clear that state-sponsored educational institutions could not exclude women on account of their gender,” Allred explained.
Ginsburg paved the way for the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which passed in 1974 and allowed women to apply for credit cards and mortgages without a male co-signer.
Naomi Mezey, law professor and co-founder of the Gender+ Justice Initiative at Georgetown University, told USA TODAY that Ginsburg’s work surrounding women’s financial independence laid a base for further issues of equality and independence.
Athia Hardt, a former Arizona Republic reporter and current consultant with Hardt and Associates, told USA TODAY about her personal experience with a bank telling her she could no longer have her account in her name after she married, but instead needed to be under “Mrs. Charles Case.”
“I said, ‘I’m not taking his name,’ and they said, ‘That doesn’t matter,’ ” she recalled, saying she felt “both frustrated and angry at the system.”
In a post to her Facebook page following Ginsburg’s death, Hardt shared her story and encouraged other women to do the same as a way to “honor RBG with our memories of something we encountered before she changed the world.”
Gloria Feldt, author and former president of Planned Parenthood, was another woman to share her experience on the Facebook post.
“I had been employed full time for several years and was earning more than my ex. I went to buy a car and couldn’t get a loan without my husband’s signature,” she wrote. “That was my tipping point to feminist activism.”
In 2007, Ginsburg famously dissented from the Supreme Court’s decision on the pay discrimination case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
“When she was in the minority, she was a powerful voice in dissent in ways that changed the game,” said Emily Martin, general counsel at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington. “For example, when five justices ruled against Lilly Ledbetter in her pay discrimination case, Justice Ginsburg’s call to action inspired the public and Congress to change the law and strengthen equal pay protections.”
She was a crucial vote on the current court to keep Roe v. Wade. Even though she had doubts about the way the monumental case was decided, she was in no doubt about women’s right to choose.
Randall Kessler, a family law and trial lawyer in Atlanta, says Ginsburg was an indispensable brick in the legal wall that has protected Roe v. Wade since the 1970s, and not just on the Supreme Court.
“Now she’s gone, it means pro-choice proponents are scared to death of the unknown,” Kessler says. “They believe (her death and replacement) will empower state legislatures to pass new laws or reintroduce those laws already struck down by the Supreme Court.”
In 1972, Ginsburg argued that excluding a pregnant woman from the Air Force, like in the case of Struck v. Secretary of Defense, is sex discrimination.
“It was standard 50 years ago for women to be fired from their jobs when they were pregnant,” Mezey explained. “(Ginsburg) herself hid her pregnancy while she was teaching at a law school in order not to be told that she couldn’t teach.”
But as a litigator and on the Supreme Court, Martin explained, Ginsburg changed “what was possible for women in the U.S.”
Mezey added that Ginsburg was able to identify and help address stereotypes, both positive and negative, that “nonetheless end up creating self-fulfilling prophecies of unequal distribution of work.”
“In her life – including as a daughter, a woman, a lawyer and a mother herself– she actually saw so much of what turned out to be profoundly unjust and unequal,” Mezey said.
During the 1979 case Duren v. Missouri, jury duty was optional for women in several states because it was viewed to be a burden for women whose role was seen as the “center of home and family life.” Ginsburg, who represented Billy Duren in the case, argued that women should serve on juries on the basis that they are valued the same as men.
In a 2009 interview with USA TODAY, Ginsburg upheld this notion, saying, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. … It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”
The 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges, which allowed queer women and the rest of the LGBTQ community the right to same-sex marriages in all 50 states, ended in a 5-4 ruling. Without Ginsburg, the outcome may have been different.
Imani Rupert-Gordon, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told USA TODAY that Ginsburg’s impact on queer women spans far beyond just the issue of gay marriage.
“She really was responsible for helping us expand the concept of gender discrimination,” she said. “It’s those same types of principles that led to the intellectual foundation that would extend discrimination protections to other considerations like gender identity and sexual orientation, which is important in general but especially important to LGBTQ people.”
Mezey added that in Ginsburg’s gender advocacy, she “opened up space for protection of people on the basis of gender identity.”
Though Ginsburg left her mark on the legal world, she also had a lasting influence on women on an individual level by being an example of a powerful woman in her writing, speaking and work as a judge.
And Ginsburg’s impact on empowerment didn’t stop with her generation or the next – she’s continued to energize young women. Her rise as a pop culture icon has inspired books, movies and even Halloween costumes for young girls.
“That grief is about her, about people’s connection to her,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU who heads its newly renamed Ruth Bader Ginsburg Center for Liberty. “I’m thinking about what an icon she became in the last 20 years – I own an RBG bracelet because someone sent it to me! I can’t think of any other justice who became a pop culture icon in that particular way.”
Hardt says Ginsburg’s legacy has also taught others to “continue to do the hard work.”
“She really kept going on the good fight for her whole life,” she said. “She really is a heroine.”
In an interview with USA TODAY in 2013, Ginsburg exemplified this ideal, insisting she would continue working even as others pressured her to step down as the oldest justice on the court.
“As long as I can do the job full-steam, I would like to stay here,” she said. “I have to take it year by year at my age, and who knows what could happen next year? Right now, I know I’m OK.”
Contributing: Richard Wolf; photo illustrations by Veronica Bravo