This is part of the #WomenWhoLead campaign! During Women’s History Month LiveYourDream.org is featuring powerful women who are making a difference in their fields, inspiring the next generation, and changing the world for the better. These fierce feminist icons advocate for gender equality, challenge sexism, fight the patriarchy, and empower women everywhere to live their dreams.
Who is Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
Few, if any, U.S. Supreme Court justices have taken American pop culture by storm like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Known as the “Notorious RBG,” Ginsburg along with her famous dissent collar are the subject of T-shirts, action figures, jewelry, mugs, a movie (On the Basis of Sex), and more. As only the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg is revered as an icon and trailblazer because of her contributions toward gender equality during her decades-long career. She has overcome significant obstacles on her way to the highest court in the country, using her position to affect change for gender equality and other social justice causes.
Landmark decisions for equality
Before becoming a Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg made significant gains for gender equality through her work as a law student and attorney. In 1956 she enrolled at Harvard Law School and was one of only 9 women in a class of 500 men. At the start of her legal career in the 1960s, she encountered discrimination from firms that outright rejected the idea of hiring a woman. Nevertheless, she persisted, and established a successful career in law and academia (and was one of just 20 women law professors at the time). She co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project in 1972 and directed the project until she was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1980.
During that time, Ginsburg argued six pivotal gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, showing that gender discrimination can harm men as well as women, and that laws that appear to benefit women are actually rooted in sexism. For example, in Frontiero v. Richardson, Ginsburg successfully argued that U.S. military should provide the same family benefits to servicewomen as it does to servicemen. In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, Ginsburg successfully argued that the Social Security Act had discriminated against a widower who had a newborn baby because he had not been allowed to collect survivors’ benefits for which widows with minor children were eligible. In Duren v. Missouri, Ginsburg argued that jury duty should not be voluntary for women because this showed that women’s jury service wasn’t valued equally as men’s service.
Ginsburg became an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 1993 and is now the senior member of the court’s liberal wing. Throughout her service, she has impacted many important cases. To highlight just a few recent high-profile ones:
Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores (2014)
In this case, the owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of arts-and-crafts stores challenged the Affordable Care Act requirement that employers’ health insurance plans must offer their employees certain kinds of birth control, citing their religious beliefs. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, but Ginsburg dissented, pointing out that the employees of for-profit corporations do not come from any one religion, and that “The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the Court’s attention. One can only wonder why the Court shuts this key difference from sight.”
Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)
During the hearing for this milestone civil rights case in same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S., Ginsburg pointed out that, contrary to what opponents of equal marriage claimed, the institution of marriage has not been static throughout history: “Marriage today is not what it was under the common law tradition, under the civil law tradition. Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female.” This insight combated the claims that seeking to legalize same-sex marriage would defy the definition of marriage, by showing that there has not been one single definition of marriage.
Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018)
Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, had declined to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012, citing his Christian faith. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission found this to be a violation of Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act based on sexual orientation. However, the Supreme Court decided that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had violated Phillips’ right to exercise his religion, and that the commission had treated Phillips’ case differently than how they had treated other bakers who had refused create cakes with anti-gay messaging.
Ginsburg’s dissent eviscerated the majority opinion’s reasoning. She wrote, “When a couple contacts a bakery for a wedding cake, the product they are seeking is a cake celebrating their wedding – not a cake celebrating heterosexual weddings or same-sex weddings – and that was the service Craig and Mullins were denied. […] What matters is that Phillips would not provide a good or service to a same-sex couple that he would provide to a heterosexual couple.” Ginsburg also pointed out that the bakers who had refused to create cakes with anti-gay messaging were refusing based on the actual words and images that the cakes would display, whereas Phillips’ refusal was based on the identity (sexual orientation) of the same-sex couple.
Her legacy for women’s rights
Ginsburg’s tenacity in the face of repeated adversity, her trailblazing contributions toward equality make her an inspiration to many. Her landmark cases with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project strategically showed that gender discrimination affects everyone, not just women, and her opinions and dissents as Supreme Court justice continue to shape the legal landscape of the U.S.
Melissa Young is a writer and former copy editor from the San Francisco Bay Area who is passionate about social justice, feminism, and the Oxford comma. Her current work as a legal writer finds her drafting visa petitions that enable people to immigrate to the USA. She sustains herself by making music, drinking boba milk tea, and having existential conversations.