“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Known as The Notorious R.B.G by her millennial fanbase, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became something of an American cultural and feminist icon in her later years.
The lawyer who served as a Supreme Court Justice from 1993 until her death in September last year is best known for championing the legal fight for civil, female and minority rights. Her bearing on the political, legal and cultural world is excellently depicted in the documentary RBG and the film On the Basis of Sex.
Being the second woman ever to make it to America’s Supreme Court reflects something of a trend in Bader Ginsburg’s remarkable story. Admitted to Harvard Law School in 1957 (whilst being a full-time caregiver to her one-year-old daughter and her cancer-stricken husband), she was one of nine female undergraduates out of 500 men.
Despite graduating Harvard with outstanding credentials, she was not able to overcome the gender prejudices at New York law firms, forcing her to pursue a different career path. In 1972, Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) where she participated in over three hundred gender discrimination cases in just two years.
When she rose to the Supreme Court, she would go on to argue six gender equality cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, winning all but one of them. Her early cases display her resolve to uphold women’s rights, fighting for cases surrounding reproductive healthcare, pregnancy benefits and equal pay.
Ginsburg followed up her controversial statement that she hoped one day all nine Supreme Court Justices will be women, remarking: “people are shocked when I say that. But there have been nine men and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”
RBG offers some ways in which we can chip away at the glass ceiling within the legal system and society at large:
Be independent and not afraid to dissent
“Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” – Speaking at Harvard Law School in 2015.
As a liberal justice on a majority conservative court, Ginsburg was not afraid to be the voice for dissent. She also held conviction and boldly stood for what she believed to be right. Several of Ginsburg’s most memorable dissents came from cases involving gender discrimination and civil rights. These decisions discarded laws that treated men and women differently based on entrenched gender stereotypes.
“Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow” – Interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, 2002
“Generally, change in our society is incremental. Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time” – As quoted in Notorious RBG, The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, via Think Progress.
Throughout her career and her time on the bench, Ginsburg experienced a myriad of rewarding victories and disappointing defeats. Ginsburg never gave up and remained steadfast in her pursuit for equality, no matter how slow the pace may be.
Be resilient and stay strong in the face of adversity
Throughout their careers, women have to overcome a multitude of obstacles and gender inequalities. While studying at Harvard, an institution which made it abundantly clear that women were not welcome in the 1950s, Ginsburg and the other eight women in her cohort encountered an onslaught of injustices.
Not only were women were refused access to the library, they were asked by the dean to explain why they had enrolled at the university and taken a place from a man. Despite all of the challenges that she was confronted by, Ginsburg did not let this challenge her confidence and graduated from Harvard as valedictorian.
She also made the coveted and prestigious Law Review. Throughout her tenure on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg suffered multiple bouts of cancer for twenty years, and yet, returned to the bench shortly after treatment. Ginsburg certainly did not have an easy career, but she remained resilient.
“Women’s rights are an essential part of the overall human rights agenda, trained on the equal dignity and ability to live in freedom all people should enjoy”. – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, ACLU