In 1956, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of only nine female students at Harvard Law School. As the American Civil Liberties Union explains on its website, the dean wanted to know why they were taking places that could have been occupied by men. With hindsight, the answer in Ginsburg’s case is clear: She was preparing to change the world.
|Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg|
Today, in her 20th year on the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg turns 80. We’re inviting readers to wish a happy birthday to someone who gives true meaning to the title “Justice.”
Ginsburg made law review both at Harvard and Columbia (where she transferred for her third year) an unprecedented achievement. She tied for first in her class at Columbia – and still couldn’t get a job at a law firm. When she joined the faculty at Rutgers Law School she had to hide her pregnancy for fear of losing the job – that kind of discrimination was legal at the time.
In 1972, she became the first tenured woman professor at Columbia, where, as Jeffrey Toobin writes in The New Yorker, she co-founded the first law review on women’s issues and co-authored the first casebook on the subject. That same year she was named the first director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.
Toobin writes that Gisburg “argued several of the most important women’s rights cases in the Court’s history.” Prof. Susan Deller Ross of Georgetown University Law Center told Toobin that Ginsburg “Helped turn the Court 180 degrees, from a very hands-off attitude, which had often been expressed very cavalierly, to one where they struck down law after law that treated the sexes differently.”
President Carter named Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (another reminder of the importance of that circuit) and President Clinton named her to the Supreme Court.
Justice Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, which held that it was unconstitutional for the Virginia Military Institute to deny admission to women. More often, given the nature of the current court, Justice Ginsburg has written in dissent.
When Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a 5-4 majority in Gonzales v. Carhart, upheld a federal ban on late term abortions in part because he believed “some women come to regret their decisions” even as he conceded he could find “no reliable data to measure the phenomenon” Justice Ginsburg was scathing in dissent.
She labeled the claim “an antiabortion shibboleth for which it concededly has no reliable evidence” yet is used by the majority in a decision that “deprives women of the right to make an autonomous choice, even at the expense of their safety.
“This way of thinking reflects ancient notions about women's place in the family and under the Constitution—ideas that have long since been discredited.
Another Ginsburg dissent ultimately became one of her greatest victories.
When the majority denied Lilly Ledbetter the right to sue when she was denied equal pay (a story told in AFJ’s documentary Supreme Injustices), Justice Ginsburg not only read her dissent from the bench, she rewrote it in plain language.
"In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination," she said. Most important, she ended her dissent with an explicit call to Congress to rewrite the law to undo the damage done by the majority.
Congress did just that. And, as Toobin notes, “In Ginsburg’s chambers there is a framed copy of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. It was a gift from the President, who inscribed it ‘Thanks for helping create a more equal and just society.’”
Today, on Justice Ginsburg’s 80th birthday, we’d like to thank her, too.