Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Friday at the age of 87, spent her life building a world in which women and men were on equal footing, at home and beyond. Through careful, strategic legal work, first as a litigator and later as a Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg helped turn the idea of gender equality into a fundamental right ― and she did it while raising two kids and facing down the same discrimination she spent her career dismantling.
Now her battle for gender equality is under threat. Women stand to lose not only access to abortion but even access to birth control and adequate health care if Obamacare is overturned. The right of pregnant women to be free from discrimination at work is not settled, with Democratic lawmakers trying to pass better protections. Women are still being forced out of work or denied jobs because they’re expecting, just as Ginsburg was when she was living with her husband in Oklahoma after they were first married. Recently, “progressive” employer SoulCycle was sued for demoting a pregnant executive and then firing her shortly after she gave birth.
The Department of Education under President Donald Trump wants to roll back civil rights protections for college students who’ve been sexually assaulted or harassed. Women are still paid less than men to do the same jobs, and the gap is even larger for Black and Hispanic women.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to derail an entire generation of women, pushing them out of the workforce to handle caregiving responsibilities in the home while schools operate virtually or only intermittently. Caregiving duties, despite Ginsburg’s long efforts to include men in the domestic sphere, remain largely viewed as the primary responsibility of women.
“This moment is so very high-stakes,” said Emily Martin, a vice president at the National Women’s Law Center and former deputy director at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, where Ginsburg was a founding director.
“There is a right-wing movement out there that is definitely interested in busting norms and challenging laws and precedents that seem to be well-established,” said Martin.
Fighting For Women ― And Men
At the end of her speech accepting President Bill Clinton’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993, Ginsburg thanked her late mother, Celia Bader.
“I pray that I may be all that she would have been, had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve, and daughters are cherished as much as sons,” she said.
There’s no question that Celia Bader, who died when Ginsburg was in high school, would be proud. Ginsburg’s work at the ACLU opened up new paths for women and helped girls see that they, too, could grow up to become a Supreme Court justice or president.
When Ginsburg began the Women’s Rights Project in 1972, there were more than 1,000 laws on the books that disadvantaged women, who could be denied a credit card or refused a mortgage on their own. These patriarchal constrictions assumed that men called the shots and that women belonged at home.
“They were perfectly lawful and the Supreme Court had never said otherwise until she got involved,” said Ria Tabacco Mar, the current director of the Women’s Rights Project. “She went after those laws and attacked them.”
Ginsburg did this not just by representing women who were facing discrimination but by representing men. One of her notable cases involved Stephen Wiesenfeld, who wanted time to stay home with his baby boy, Jason, after his wife, Paula, died in childbirth. At the time, Social Security wouldn’t pay out full benefits to widowers because they weren’t supposed to need them like widows did.
“One of her favorite things to do was to [represent] men who wanted more caregiving responsibilities,” said Mar. That’s an ongoing project, she added, pointing to a recent case the ACLU filed against JP Morgan for giving men less parental leave than women.
“In order for women to achieve full equality outside of the home, men have to take on their fair share in the home,” Mar explained, “and denying men the opportunity to do this harms both men and women. All of us should have a deep and meaningful home life and work life if we so choose.”
The pandemic is making that goal seem ever more remote.
Until the coronavirus struck, the U.S. was coming closer to Ginsburg’s vision in some areas: The gender pay gap had narrowed. The Me Too movement brought heightened attention to the discrimination women face at work.
The majority of college graduates are now women, as are the majority of students enrolled in law school. That was close to unimaginable when Ginsburg was one of just nine women in her law school class at Harvard.
And yet, 25 women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, and his administration is bent on rolling back women’s rights and gender equality in a number of ways, from abortion rights to health care to equal pay to LGBTQ rights.
A Lost Generation
COVID-19 is just the most recent obstacle to women’s progress, as an ineffective government response and shuttered schools threaten to push thousands of highly educated, mid-career women out of the workforce. Women are nearly three times more likely to leave the workforce because of coronavirus child-care demands, according to Census Bureau surveys. And it’s not clear when they can get back to work.
The economic fallout from the pandemic is creating a lost generation, said Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress. And that generation “is arguably the most educated demographic in America.”
Ginsburg knew how much sex discrimination and gender stereotyping around caregiving held women back. She faced it herself, over and over. After she finished tied for first in her class at Columbia Law School, getting a job was a struggle. The top firms and the best judges didn’t see the need for a female lawyer.
When she landed a teaching role at Rutgers, Ginsburg was paid less than her male peers. When she confronted the dean about it, he said that “it was only fair that she receive a lower salary than a man with a family to support,” wrote Jane Sherron De Hart in her sweeping biography “Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life.”
Like so many women, Ginsburg struggled in those early years to balance caring for a young daughter and an ailing father-in-law while her husband, Marty, was putting in long hours at work. “Trapped by the needs of two generations” is how De Hart put it.
But Ginsburg never considered taking time away from work, De Hart wrote: “Ever the realist, she knew that asking for special consideration could jeopardize her prospects for tenure.”
Once you get knocked out of the workforce, it’s hard to get back on track. So Ginsburg hung on.
In the weeks ahead, civil rights lawyers are gearing up to fight for her legacy.
“She deserved a period of mourning and it seems profoundly unfair that this time which should be about remembering her legacy has to be a time of fear and fighting,” said Martin.
But battling on is what Ginsburg would want. “She pointed the way to the fight we need to have, and we’re all going to show up for it.”