Supreme Court Justice and gender equality hero Ruth Bader Ginsburg turns 87 years old on March 15. Her achievements are endless, but here are seven reasons why we’re celebrating!
Some revolutionaries shook up a society with anger burning and guns blazing. Others study hard, knock down an unfair system one peg at a time, and speak truth to power while wearing a lace collar. That’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
She got two mottoes from her mother, Celia Bader (who marched for women’s suffrage):
“Be independent,” take care of yourself without being financially beholden to a man, and
“Be a lady,” don't allow emotions like anger to be so consuming they get in your way.
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg sees something repugnant — like systemic discrimination — she gets straight to work. It hasn’t been easy. Over decades, Ruth Bader Ginsburg faced a slew of indignities. But she harnessed courage and resolve to strategically break down America’s sexist, unethical laws and institutions. Now, on her 87th birthday, we honor her life’s work.
7) RBG was defiant in the face of entrenched sexism in college and law school.
Most colleges didn’t accept women in the 1950s, and Ruth Bader was one of the first to break the gender barrier. At Cornell University, she was sexually harassed by a professor, who offered answers to a test in exchange for sex. She confronted him: “I went to his office and I said, ‘How dare you? How dare you do this?’ And that was the end of that.”
At Harvard Law School, she and the eight other women in her class of more than 500 students were ogled, ignored in the classroom, excluded from the library, and asked by the dean how they could possibly justify taking a seat away from a man. But that hostile environment didn’t stop her.
She fought it with brain power and superhuman physical endurance. She was so obsessed with the law that she’d regularly stay up until dawn studying. She’s still known for being able to work until 3 a.m. and live on just two hours of sleep.
While she was kicking butt at the top of her classes, she was also taking care of her young daughter and sick husband. Martin (Marty) Ginsburg contracted testicular cancer and had extensive radiation therapy, which kept him from going to his own law school classes. So, RBG organized his friends to attend his classes, worked through their notes with Marty, and typed up Marty’s papers — all while doing her own schoolwork on top of it.
She tied for first in her class from Columbia Law School in 1959. She also was the first person to become a member of both the prestigious Harvard Law Review, and the Columbia Law Review — one of many of her unprecedented feats. She proved to those elite schools that a woman could succeed.
6) RBG showed the world what a partnership looks like in a husband-wife relationship.
Ruth Bader met Marty Ginsburg while they were both at Cornell University, and they forged an equal partnership from the beginning. He learned to cook so she didn’t have to. Later, he lobbied for her seats on the Court of Appeals in D.C. and on the Supreme Court. And he gave up his law firm in New York to follow her to Washington — a shocking move at the time. Here’s how she put it at her 1993 Senate confirmation hearing:
I surely would not be in this room today without the determined efforts of men and women who kept dreams of equal citizenship alive. I have had the great good fortune to share life with a partner truly extraordinary for his generation. A man who believed at age 18 when we met that a woman’s work, whether at home or on the job, is as important as a man’s. I became a lawyer when women were not wanted by most members of the legal profession. I became a lawyer because Marty supported that choice unreservedly.
5.) RBG won a whopping five cases before the Supreme Court — and they all advanced the Constitutional protection of equal rights for all Americans.
As smart and accomplished as Ruth Bader Ginsburg was, no law firm would hire her after she graduated from law school. Law firms slammed the door in her face time after time because they only hired men. She realized that “being a woman was an impediment.”
As Ginsburg navigated the legal working world in the 1960s, she saw how thousands of state and federal laws were treating women as second-class citizens. At that time, most states’ laws allowed employment termination for pregnancy, and let banks deny credit to women without a male co-signer. The Supreme Court had rejected every challenge to laws that treated women worse than men.
All this gender discrimination fueled Ginsburg’s drive for social justice. In the early '70s, she followed the strategy of NAACP civil rights lawyer and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who helped dismantle Jim Crow laws case by case over many years — leading to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which outlawed racial segregation in schools in 1954. Like Marshall, Ginsburg centered her arguments on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which says all persons should be treated equally under the law.
Throughout the 1970s, Ginsburg led the ACLU’s Women's Rights Project, for which she argued and won five landmark gender equality cases before the Supreme Court. As she said in the 2018 documentary RBG: "I knew that I was speaking to men who didn't think there was such a thing as gender-based discrimination, and my job was to tell them it really exists.”
These cases set the foundation for the country’s laws against sex discrimination, and helped eliminate being male as the criteria for employment, pay, and benefits:
- Two cases in 1975 and 1979 established the requirement that women serve on juries, recognizing that they should enjoy both the benefits and the responsibilities of our judicial system.
The vaunted woman's privilege viewed against history's backdrop simply reflects and perpetuates a certain way of thinking about women. Women traditionally were deemed lesser citizens.Ruth Bader Ginsburg, arguing before the Supreme Court (Duren v. Missouri, 1979)
- An employment benefits case in 1973 required the U.S. military to equally distribute family-based benefits for service members regardless of sex.
In asking the Court to declare sex a suspect criterion, we urge a position forcibly stated in 1837 by Sara Grimke, noted abolitionist and advocate of equal rights for men and women. She said, ‘I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.'— Ruth Bader Ginsburg, arguing before the Supreme Court (Frontiero v. Richardson, 1973)
- Two cases in 1974 and 1975 threw out gender-based distinctions in survivors’ benefits, granting widowers the same benefits as widows. RBG argued that while giving widows special treatment sounded nice, it wasn’t. Withholding benefits to widowers devalued the work of their deceased wives.
A gender line...helps to keep women not on a pedestal, but in a cage.—Ruth Bader Ginsburg, arguing before the Supreme Court (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 1975)
4) At her confirmation hearings, RBG openly declared that abortion access is a Constitutional right.
At her 1993 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Ruth Bader Ginsburg showed what it looks like to uphold constitutional rights. Unlike recent Supreme Court nominees, she affirmatively declared the Constitutional right to safe, legal abortion. When Sen. Hank Brown (R-CO) grilled her about her views on abortion, she declared:
But you asked me about my thinking about equal protection versus individual autonomy, and my answer to you is it's both. This is something central to a woman's life, to her dignity. It's a decision that she must make for herself. And when Government controls that decision for her, she's being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.
3) RBG wrote the historic decision ruling that state-funded schools must admit women.
In 1996, Justice Ginsburg wrote the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, which ruled that the Virginia Military Institute’s men-only admission policy violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Justice Ginsburg destroyed the Institute’s argument that its program wasn’t suitable for women. Instead, she wrote that:
[G]eneralizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.
The school has admitted women since then, and — as Justice Ginsburg predicted — they have made the school proud.
2) RBG’s dissent from the majority in Lilly Ledbetter’s case led to the passage a fair pay law.
In 2007, Justice Ginsburg dissented in the ruling against Lilly Ledbetter — a tire factory employee who learned, decades into her tenure, that she was being paid much less than men in the exact same supervisory role: She was making $3,727 per month, while her male counterparts were making between $4,286 and $5,236 per month. However, she lost the case because the Civil Rights Act had a statute of limitations for reporting on discrimination.
In her scathing dissent, Justice Ginsburg wrote that gender discrimination can be hidden for a long time and “the ball is in Congress’s court” to change the rule. In 2009, Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extended the Civil Rights Act’s statute of limitations and guarantees women equal pay for equal work.
1.) RBG put the smack down on TRAP laws in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
In the landmark Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case in 2016, the Supreme Court — including Justice Ginsburg — ruled that two abortion restrictions in Texas were unconstitutional because they would shut down most clinics in the state and cause Texans an “undue burden” on access to safe, legal abortion. The case exposed the lie that anti-abortion politicians have been peddling for years: that it’s somehow “safer” when the state imposes medically unnecessary, onerous targeted restrictions against abortion providers (TRAP) laws.
In her concurring opinion to the majority, Justice Ginsburg wrote:
Given those realities [that keep abortion access out of reach], it is beyond rational belief that H.B. 2 could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law ‘would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions’... When a State severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners... at great risk to their health and safety.
With this historic decision, the Court reaffirmed the constitutional right to access legal abortion. This decision was a triumph for abortion access. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: One of the restrictions in the Texas law that the Supreme Court struck down is nearly identical to a law at the center of a Louisiana case that the Court is set to decide this year. If the Court upholds Louisiana’s anti-abortion law, it would overturn its own ruling made just four years ago in Whole Woman’s Health.
Take Action: Join the We Decide 2020 Campaign
As we celebrate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we’re also reminded that justices are appointed by the president, and confirmed by the Senate.
President Trump promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, and he’s already appointed two. Trump has also filled the federal courts with 185 judges, many of whom hold views that are hostile to reproductive health and rights.
We want an America where everyone gets the health care they need — no matter what. To make that vision a reality, we need to elect a president who boldly supports access to safe, legal abortion. For the sake of Justice Ginsburg’s legacy and equality for everyone, we cannot let Trump appoint more anti-reproductive health, anti-equality judges.