When Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) died in September 2020, the many obituaries correctly emphasized her lifelong battle for women’s rights. However, and this is largely overlooked, RBG was first and foremost committed to equality and equal opportunity.
As a judge and lawyer, RBG was driven by the notion that there existed discrimination against women, and equally important, that this practice violated the US Constitution. Throughout her career she was repeatedly proved right (although she often dissented) in both instances, thus facilitating the feminist revolution. RBG’s commitment to women’s rights was pivotal in creating better opportunities for women in the workplace, in education and in society at large.
A Solid Track Record
Although women were (and arguably still are) more discriminated than men, the justice system also encompassed discrimination towards men on the basis of sex. As a young lawyer, RBG argued that the Social Security Act of 1935 discriminated against men based solely on their gender, and that intermediate scrutiny should be applied when evaluating such gender distinctions. She won a unanimous verdict (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld) and simultaneously legitimized women’s payments into the Social Security system.
In 1976, RBG brought another landmark case before the Supreme Court. A widower, Leon Goldfarb, applied to assemble his late wife’s Social Security benefits; however, a statute in the Social Security Act maintained that Goldfarb was only entitled to those benefits if he had received more than half his financial support from Hannah Goldfarb, who had worked as a secretary for 25 years until her death in 1968. No such burden of proof was placed on widows, which Ginsburg argued “assumed gainful employment as a domain in which men come first, women second.”
In a historic 5-4 decision, the court ruled the Social Security statute unconstitutional and cited “archaic and overbroad” generalizations based on “assumptions as to women’s dependency.” It was win for an individual man with broad ramifications for women’s equality. Ginsburg’s precedents were compounding, as she helped American law move toward a world in which gender was no excuse for treating people differently.
RBG Rises to the Supreme Court
Her feminist credo was already established, when Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme court in 1993, where she was confirmed almost unanimously (96-3 votes) in the Senate. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not your habitually super-star persona, but her personal story as well as her early political activism, in addition to her Supreme Court Seat, made her a popular icon for the feminist movement featuring block buster movies and the nickname Notorious RBG. Shortly after Barack Obama assumed office in 2009, RBG became the oldest justice on the court at age 77. Albeit rumors that she would retire because of age and poor health, she expressed no plans to step down.
Her Legacy and Feminist Credo
Moreover, she did not follow the advice from numerous progressive activists to retire, so that Obama could appoint a like-minded successor. On the contrary, she held on to her position throughout Obamas eight year in The White House. Indeed, that decision turned fatal, as Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, and accordingly, nominate conservative judge, Amy Coney Barrett, as her replacement one month after her death. Perhaps Amy Coney Barrett will be a similar icon for conservatives as RBG was for liberals. No doubt, RBG would prefer a more liberal minded judge. Nonetheless, the very fact that a young mother can serve on the Supreme Court, is testament to RBGs feminist credo; facilitating opportunities for women at the highest office.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s larger than life status, was well deserved as she was a transformative figure in American history. Indeed, it is difficult to overestimate her influence in creating (more) equal opportunities in the US. Not only for women, but also for men.
Eirik is a specialist on Norwegian politics, history of ideas, and globalization.