In losing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we lost a trailblazer for equality before the law.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended law school as one of only a handful of women, and even after graduating first in her class at Columbia, found it difficult to find a job because of her sex. Boy, times have changed — and few have done more to make that change than RBG herself. Women now outnumber men in law school, a scenario that must have been difficult for the future justice to imagine. It’s a sad day to see this lioness of the law pass.
Ginsburg is of course known for the impressive gains she made for women’s equality. But during her career, she was careful to note that equality protected people, not groups. Equality before the law, she said, makes people “free to be you or me.” That is, it allows people to be considered as individuals rather than simply members of the groups they were born into.
In fighting against sex discrimination of all kinds, she was even keen to fight against laws that purported to help women but often did the opposite. She wrote a scathing brief asking the Supreme Court to strike down a law that granted a lower drinking age to women than men. Though the law was intended as a compliment of sorts to women (it was based on the idea that women are more responsible than men) she observed that in actuality, the law pigeonholed women by assuming they drink less, drive less, and are generally better behaved. It created “an artificial barrier to full realization by men and women of their human potential,” thereby “retard(ing) progress toward equal opportunity, free from gender-based discrimination.”
She also challenged a U.S. military policy that unequally gave housing and medical benefits to the spouses of service members. While female service members had to prove their husbands were “dependents,” the wives of male service members were automatically awarded benefits. Arguing the case before the Supreme Court, Ginsburg channeled Sarah Moore Grimké, the abolitionist and suffragette, declaring, “I ask no favor for my sex … All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
Once on the court, Ginsburg continued her quest for equality, including her landmark opinion in U.S. v. Virginia, which allowed women to attend public colleges on the same terms as men. Throughout her career spanning six decades, Justice Ginsburg fought for and lived out her values — showing the world that women can be students, professors, litigators, and judges while also being mothers and wives.
Women like Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Cornelia Kennedy forged a path in the law for subsequent generations of women—these two authors included. We owe a debt of gratitude to her as a pioneering woman in the legal profession.
Anastasia Boden is a senior attorney and Elizabeth Slattery is senior legal fellow & deputy director for the Separation of Powers at Pacific Legal Foundation.