Editor’s note: The Eagle Coalition aims to promote the values and ideals of global citizenship – that the needs of the global community transcend national identity. Our organization wishes to highlight periodically individuals whom we believe embody our understanding of what it means to be a global citizen. In our inaugural profile, Justice Ginsburg’s promotion of equality of gender before the law serves as an inspiration for many for how governments can protect the rights of those on the margins of society.
On September 18, 2020, the United States began to mourn the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who succumbed to complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer earlier that day. Only the second woman to ever be nominated to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg spent her career fighting for gender equality, in her own life and for millions of women throughout the United States and world. She was one of only nine women in her Harvard Law School class of 500, and when her husband – also a Harvard Law student – was diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ginsburg cared for him, attended his classes and transcribed his assignments as well as her own, cared for their newborn child, and earned a position as editor on the prestigious Harvard Law Review. After graduating from Columbia Law School following the family’s move to New York, Ginsburg struggled to get a job and experienced first-hand the discrimination that women and mothers faced in the workplace – discrimination that she would famously work to strike down later in her career. Though Harvard Law School Professor Albert Sacks recommended her to a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter , Frankfurter had never hired a woman and did not even interview Ginsburg. She eventually secured a clerkship with federal district Judge Edmund L Palmieri after one of her mentors and law professors at Columbia threatened to never send another clerk to Palmieri if he did not take Ginsburg.
She worked as a professor at Rutgers University and volunteered for the ACLU where, in 1971, she won her first Supreme Court case, Reed v. Reed. This landmark case was the first in which the 14th Amendment was applied to the protection of women’s rights, ruling that the administrators of estates cannot be determined on the basis of sex. Ginsburg eventually became director of the newly created Women’s Rights Project in the ACLU and made General Counsel in 1973. Having had the opportunity to study and travel to Sweden on a comparative law project with Columbia, she was exposed to the flourishing feminist movement in Scandinavia and support for working mothers that shaped her view on gender equality in the United States for years to come. Ginsburg recognized that the movement for gender equality needed not only to address the ways in which women were oppressed by law, but how the law addressed men’s rights and protections as well. It was for this reason that Ginsburg championed many men in gender equality cases, one of her most notable being Weinberger v. Weisenfeld. After the death of his wife, a widower was unable to file for social security benefits for himself and his now-motherless child because social security benefits were determined on the salary of the deceased husband. In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court found that this violated the 5th Amendment by discriminating against female wage-earners that paid social security taxes and the “archaic and overbroad” generalization that women did not significantly contribute to a household income.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where she maintained a moderate voting record, comfortable with both her conservative and liberal colleagues. Many who had followed her career were surprised at Ginsburg’s criticism of the Roe v. Wade decision in 1993. A pro-choice supporter, Ginsburg expressed her belief that the sweeping decision of Roe v. Wade allowed for prohibition and regulation of abortion rights in states and a more surgical ruling would have allowed for forward momentum on the issue to develop the medical procedure as a medical right without risking immense backlash from anti-abortion sects. The same year, President Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, making her only the second woman and the first Jewish woman to hold the position.
As a member of the Supreme Court, she continued her work towards equality in the law by pushing for gender and immigrant rights. She wrote her first majority opinion for the 1996 case United States v. Virginia in which she and the Supreme Court ruled that the Virginia Military Institute could not deny women admission. Of the rigorous standards that the school argued women generally could not meet, Ginsburg wrote “It may be that many women would not want to go to VMI, but many men would not, either. And as long as there are qualified women who want to go — and there are — they must be admitted.” This rationale has had enumerable implications on military service since, providing precedent for the introduction of women and LGBTQ men and women to branches of service previously prohibited to them.
Through the 2000s, Ginsburg became a liberal pillar, dissenting famously in Bush v. Gore and working to protect the Voting Rights Act and Affordable Care Act, the latter of which the Supreme Court is set to review through opening arguments in California v. Texas on November 10, 2020 putting the law in greater jeopardy of being overturned with Ginsburg’s seat now vacant. Ginsburg was also crucial in the 2017 ruling in Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, which determined that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – colloquially known as DACA – could remain in place against initial efforts from the Trump administration at repealing it. Because of this ruling, thousands of children of undocumented immigrants in the United States are at present protected from deportation to countries in which they were not raised. Ginsburg maintained a left-of-center voting record but was heavily criticized by her support of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that environmentalists argued is deeply damaging to the landscapes and residents of the Appalachian region.
Ginsburg’s lasting legacy will be the perseverance that she exhibited in her life and career while facing towering discrimination against women as well as the independence and equality that her work has guaranteed millions of people. In large part because of Ginsburg, women now have the right to equal pay (Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.), mothers and pregnant women have protection from discrimination, and men are valued as caregivers and received the same benefits of such women under the law (Moritz v. Commissioner), the latter being the subject of the box-office picture on Ginsburg’s life On The Basis Of Sex. She became a cultural icon, inspiring many with her quick-wit and daily workout routine she did even into her 80s, and received the nickname “Notorious R.B.G.” from millennials after the late-rapper Notorious B.I.G., much to the confusion of law and politics professors across the country. Comedian Kate McKinnon also played a satirical version of Ginsburg as a recurring character on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update.
Ginsburg inspired women everywhere but knew that there was still work to be done. Since Henry Clay in 1852, important members of the nation have ‘laid in state’ in the US Capitol Building in honor of their contributions to the people. In the 148 year history of this tradition, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be the first woman given this honor, despite the incredible contributions of women before her. In an interview, Ginsburg recounted how she was often asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court. She fought her entire career into schools and courts of only men that rarely had their validity questioned. She fought to keep the door open behind her so that women everywhere had equal opportunity and protections under the law. And so when asked that question of how many women would be enough, Ginsburg replied simply “my answer is when there are nine.”