On what would be Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 88th birthday, we’re honored to celebrate the amazing legacy she left behind, including just a few of her key accomplishments in the fight for gender equality. Many of these achievements are profiled in Ginsburg’s last book, Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue.
Amanda Tyler, co-author of the book and a former law clerk for Ginsburg, describes the late Justice’s work for gender equality in the introduction to the book:
“Justice Ginsburg had already begun a litigation career that would lead in time to comparison of her work for gender equality to the work Justice Thurgood Marshall had undertaken to dismantle segregation. One by one, Justice Ginsburg toppled the stereotypes and assumptions that had provided the foundation for cases like Muller v. Oregon and Hoyt v. Florida. . . Throughout the 1970s, she briefed ten Supreme Court cases on behalf of parties challenging gender discrimination, presented oral argument in six of those, and prevailed in seven (with one becoming moot before the Court decided it). . .
“In one of those cases, the first she argued before the Supreme Court, Frontiero v. Richardson, Justice Ginsburg explained in her brief to the Court: ‘Historically, women have been treated as subordinate and inferior to men. Although some progress toward erasing sex discrimination has been made, the distance to equal opportunity for women in the United States remains considerable.’
“To close that distance, Justice Ginsburg successfully challenged in litigation before the Supreme Court and lower courts, among others: a statutory scheme that preferred men to women as estate administrators, the automatic discharge of pregnant Air Force officers, federal statutes granting disparate benefits to male and female members of the military, the automatic exemption of women from jury pools (effectively winning the overruling of Hoyt v. Florida), the denial of equal social security benefits to men and women caregivers, the denial of unemployment benefits to pregnant women, the denial of equal social security benefits to male surviving spouses, and the limitation of assignments available to
women in the Navy.”
The list goes on. Here are just a few of Ginsburg’s early key legal accomplishments in her lifelong fight for gender equality.
As Ginsburg explains in the book, it was her own experience being pregnant while teaching at Rutgers that led her to fight for for the amendment, through her work with the ACLU:
“I didn’t tell my colleagues that I was pregnant, and for the last two months of the semester, I wore my mother-in-law’s clothes. She was one size larger. Then, with contract in hand, I told them, “When I come back for the fall semester, there’ll be a new member of our family.” That experience led to the first gender-based discrimination cases in which I participated, claims on behalf of pregnant public school teachers. School districts maintained what was euphemistically called “maternity leave.” Maternity leave was unpaid, and there was no guaranteed right of return. Women were asked to leave the classroom when their pregnancy began to show, because schools didn’t want the little children to think that their teacher had swallowed a watermelon. The pregnant teachers wanted to do a day’s work for a day’s pay and were perfectly capable of remaining in the classroom. So it was my own experience that led me to realize discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is certainly discrimination on the basis of sex.
“It took a while for the Supreme Court to understand. In the first cases that came to the Court, the majority took the view that differential treatment of pregnant workers couldn’t rank as sex-based discrimination. That was thought to be so because the world is divided into two categories of people. There are non-pregnant people. They include women as well as men. Then there are pregnant people, and they include only women. There’s no male comparator, so it can’t be sex-based discrimination. Well, when the Supreme Court made that mistake twice, first under the Constitution, then under Title VII, a huge lobbying campaign was launched with people from all sides of the political spectrum. Before long, Congress passed a law amending Title VII to say: Discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is discrimination on the basis of sex.”
“In United States v. Virginia, the Supreme Court confronted the argument that the admissions policy of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) excluding female applicants violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Founded in 1839, VMI’s mission is to produce “citizen-soldiers” prepared for leadership in civilian life and in military service. When the United States government sued the Commonwealth of Virginia challenging the exclusionary admissions policy, the State proposed creating the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership, a parallel program for women chartered with the same mission to produce ‘citizen-soldiers.’
“Ginsburg argued that the school failed to give a persuasive justification for excluding women, noting: ‘There is no reason to believe that the admission of women capable of all the activities required of VMI cadets would destroy the Institute rather than enhance its capacity to serve the ‘more perfect Union.'”
In 1961, Hoyt v. Florida upheld a state statute excluding women from the requirements of serving on a jury because of their role ‘at the center of home and family life.’ Ruth Bader Ginsburg worked tirelessly to see Hoyt v. Florida overruled. As she argued:
“The sex criterion stigmatizes when as in Hoyt against Florida, 368 U.S, it assumes that all women are preoccupied with home and children and therefore should be spared the basic civic responsibility of serving on a jury. These distinctions have a common effect. They help keep woman in her place, a place inferior to that occupied by men in our society.”
“As part of the ACLU WRP, Ginsburg supported the passage of Title IX. ACLU National Board member Pauli Murray testified in 1970 in favor of ensuring that gender equality be taken into account in higher education funding.
“In 1971, Ginsburg and Brenda Feigen joined the campaign for Title IX, witnessing its passage the next year. WRP also actively participated in the process leading up to adoption of Title IX’s implementing regulations, and drafted an influential report on gender discrimination in athletics, among other areas.”