Ruth Bader Ginsburg: An Inspiration To Working Mothers

“…My success in law school, I have no doubt was in large measure because of baby Jane…Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law students lacked.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is gone. Just like that, she is in the past tense. Ginsburg had an amazing and productive life, leaving us a rich legacy. She was a working mother, tenacious throughout her career. RBG inspired me to go to law school even as we had two young children at home. It was a risky move for me at a late age after a successful career in finance.

I never met her, but I devoured her legal opinions and speeches, feeling like I knew her. She left a treasure trove of work fighting for equality for women and gender discrimination, equally representing men when the law was unfair. Her iconic legacy contains themes of independence, giving back to others, reproductive and voting rights. She reminds us that societal change is often slow.

Today, we can take for granted the many accomplishments of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This article is my tribute to her with gratitude for inspiring me to change my career to law and ultimately teaching college students. I identified with her upbringing, independent nature, faith, and love of lifelong learning.

Some have pointed out Jewish teaching that those who die just before the Jewish New Year-as RBG did-are the ones God has held back until the last moment because they were needed the most. That may be. We still need Ginsburg, and fortunately, we can look back to her words through her opinions.

1. Being Independent

” My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.”

Raised in a modest Jewish home in Brooklyn, Ginsburg was influenced mostly by an immigrant family. They valued education above all else. Her mother, Celia, was born in New York to Austrian immigrants. Although bright, Celia could not further her education past high school as her family pushed her brother, rather than Celia, to attend college. Although she died young, Ginsburg’s mother was a significant influence, teaching her daughter to be independent.

Attending Ivy League schools–Cornell and Harvard Law School–should have meant an easy road to success for RBG. But it wasn’t.

 With her husband’s support, Ruth Bader Ginsburg achieved what few women were able to do at that time. She paved a road for working women who wanted to pursue both a career and a family. How novel it was then to want to achieve success outside of raising a family. It was still unusual for me to pursue this course decades later.

Related Post: 10 Ways For Women To Achieve Financial Independence

2. True Equality Between The Sexes

“Women will only have true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.”

“I went to law school when women were less than 3% of lawyers in the country; today they are 50%. I never had a woman teach in college or in law school. The changes have been enormous. And they’ve just-they’ve gone much too far [to be] going back.”

Women have been 47% of graduating law school classes since 2000. Yet, only about 18% of equity partners are women in the US today. Women often have different considerations than their male counterparts.  In an article by the American Bar Association, the conflict between the need to produce heavily billable hours to make partner and female fertility coincide at similar timeframes. Women choose differently than men but not out of choice. Despite Ginsburg’s efforts, gender bias remains in the legal profession and elsewhere for working mothers. However, her work gave us a better framework.

3. Gender Discrimination

Ruth Bader Ginsburg made her mark in gender equality, first as an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This happened well before she became the second woman Associate Justice on the Supreme Court in 1993. She represented both genders fighting for her belief that gender should not always be the basis for decisions. Three cases signaled Ginsburg’s prowess in gender discrimination.

Reed v Reed

Ginsburg challenged the existing rule in the Idaho statute that “males must be preferred to females”  as administrators of estates in the landmark 1971 Reed v Reed case. The Reeds were separated, and Sally Reed, as the grieving mother, won the right to administer her deceased son’s estate. Significantly, it was the first time the Supreme Court prohibited different treatment based on sex under equal protection of the 14th Amendment. The Reed case was a significant win for Ginsburg.

Moritz v Commissioner

In the 2018 film, On The Basis of Sex, Ginsburg and her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, argued for Charles Moritz in the Moritz v Commissioner case in 1972. Moritz, an unmarried man, had claimed a tax deduction for his caregiver’s cost for his invalid mother. The IRS denied the deduction specifically allowed only for women and formerly married men, excluding Moritz. Typically, women play the role of caregivers and continue to be so today. On appeal, the tax code unconstitutional, conflicting with the equal protection of the 14th amendment. Moritz case was a significant win for Ginsburg, who sought to challenge traditional gender roles. Having a male plaintiff helped her to make judges more receptive to the notion of gender discrimination.

Weinberger v Weisenfeld

Ruth Bader Ginsburg represented Stephen Wiesenfeld in the 1975 landmark case of Weinberger v Weisenfeld. After his wife, Paula, died in childbirth, Weisenfeld became the sole provider for their newborn son. Having to cut work hours, he sought child care. Wiesenfeld was ineligible for Social Security survivors’ benefits that were made available for widows, not widowers. Ginsburg argued that Wiesenfeld was being discriminated against as a widower because his deceased wife’s contributions to Social Security received unequal treatment relative to salaried men.

The case showed how traditional gender roles formed social security provision. Traditionally women were the caregivers, not men who are traditional breadwinners. According to Ginsburg’s views, conventional gender roles need change. The barriers for women erected by men were quite the norm in the 1970s. Women could not get their credit cards without their fathers or husbands as co-signors until the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

RBG said:

“Our goals in the ’70s was to end the closed-door era. There were so many things off-limits to women, policing, firefighting, mining, piloting planes. All those barriers are gone. And the stereotypical view of people of a world divided between home and child-caring women and men as breadwinners, men representing the family, outside the home, those stereotypes are gone. So we speak of a parent-rather than mother and wage earner rather than male breadwinner.”

4. Why Dissents Matter

Ruth Bader Ginsberg is not only known for her opinions that she wrote in majority decisions as Associate Justice on the Supreme Court (e.g., United States vs. Virginia), but she advanced her legacy in her dissents. While dissents do not bear the court’s imminent power like majority opinions, they carry weight into the future. “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

She strongly dissented in Ledbetter v Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in 2007. The Supreme Court ruled that a female tire-plant supervisor waited too long under the law to bring a Title VII to pay discrimination against her employer. In her dissent,  Justice Ginsburg said the majority’s ” cramped” interpretation of the filing deadlines neglected the insidiousness of pay discrimination. At her encouragement, Congress amended the law to make it easier to challenge unequal pay.

“Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the most significant dissents do become court opinions, and gradually over time, their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today but for tomorrow.”

Dissents Often Point To The Future

I have always encouraged my students to read dissents as carefully as the majority opinions in my classroom. Although not binding, individual dissents ring real in more contemporary times. I may have channeled Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s message on dissents when I assigned the Plessy v Ferguson case decided in 1896. Justice John  Harlan’s lone dissent in the case considered a Jim Crow-like rule in Louisiana presaged segregation and the Brown v Board of Education. Harlan argued the decision would poison relations between the races.

5. On Voting Rights And Racial Discrimination

Ginsburg’s most famous dissent has to be in Shelby County v Holder. She criticized Chief Justice John Robert’s 5-4 ruling. The 2013 case struck down a vital section of the Voting Rights Act, freeing southern states from apparent voting changes with the federal government. In a vehement dissent, she objected to the conservative view that Jim Crow era discrimination no longer justified VRA’s rules.

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

“Just as buildings in California have a greater need to be earthquake proofed, places, where there is greater racial polarization in voting, have a greater need for prophylactic measures to prevent purposeful racial discrimination.”

Ginsburg credits her dissent for the nickname “Notorious RBG.” It is a play on the name of the rapper, Notorious B.I.G. Apparently, a second-year New York University Law School student posted Ginsburg’s dissent on a blog, channeling her anger into something more positive.

6. Give To Others Who Are Less Fortunate

“I tell law students…if you are going to be a lawyer and just practice your profession, you have a skill like a plumber. But if you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself…something that makes a life a little better for people less fortunate than you.”

7. On Men On The Court

In Safford Unified School District v Redding, a 2009 case, Savana Redding, an eighth-grader was strip-searched by school officials. They were tipped off by another student who told them she might have ibuprofen on her person in violation of school policy. The search violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. As the only woman writing an opinion in the court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg commented on her male colleagues’ indifference to this girl’s strip search. She said, “They have never been a 13-year-old girl.”

8. The Roe V Wade Decision

Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a sometimes controversial view of Roe V Wade, the 1973 abortion case. In her confirmation hearings as Associate Justice by the Senate, she was critical of the decision. She would have preferred that the decision relies on equal protection of the 14th Amendment rather than the right to privacy. She said, “Abortion prohibition by the State, however, controls women and denies them full autonomy and full equality with men.” Instead, Ginsburg believed that Struck vs Secretary of Defense, a case she represented as an attorney for the ACLU, was the better case.

There, Susan Struck was an Air Force Captain who got pregnant while serving in Vietnam. She sued the Air Force after it said she would have to either have the abortion at the base hospital or leave if she wanted the child. She didn’t want an abortion. Instead, she tried to put the baby up for adoption because abortion violated her faith. Ginsburg found the regulation violated the equal protection principle as men were not “ordered out of the service because he had been the partner of the conception”. Struck lost in the lower court and the Supreme Court was going to hear it but the US Air Force waived Struck’s discharge and the case became moot.

9. Invest In Yourself

“So often, in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great good fortune.”

Ginsburg couldn’t land a legal job after law school. Her gender impeded her from working as an attorney. She turned to teach others and became an attorney at the ACLU, advocating for those discriminated against. She essentially invested in herself, building her great confidence up to the Supreme Court. How fortunate she found her calling as a fighter for women’s rights and gender equality. It is lucky for all of us.

10. Women And Power

“As women achieve power, the barriers will fall. As society sees what we can do, as women can see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things and we’ll  all be better for it.”

I wonder what Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be thinking if she knew that both presidential candidates, Biden and Trump, have said that they want to replace Ginsburg with a woman. To the best of my knowledge, I do not recall a time when a replacement to the Supreme Court was referred by gender. Since the very first appointment to the Supreme Court, it was assumed the Justices would be white men until Thurgood Marshall was appointed as the first black justice in 1967 and Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman justice in 1981. Let’s hope we have a diverse bench representing the US completely.

11. Work/Life Balance A Key To Gender Equality

Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke frequently on the need for work-life balance in our lives. At a 2016 event, she spoke on her belief that law firms needed to allow parents of both genders to succeed in their careers. For that to happen, RBG said it was essential to enable these professionals to have time away from work. She pointed to firms accommodating employees to work remotely given the advances in technology. RBG added that it was up to women and men to make demands in their workplace for such accommodation. She was against those who suggested being successful means giving up your career.

We will miss Ruth Bader Ginsburg for her outspoken voice and brilliant mind. She was my hero.

Final Thoughts

Ruth Bader Ginsburg inspired me not only to be an attorney but to be a better person, to give back to others, to evolve my thinking and pursuits no matter my age. She was passionate about learning and investing in herself. The path for working mothers was very dim when Ginsburg entered her profession. She spoke of work-life balance, something she was able to achieve. There is still not a clear way for women to achieve success in both roles but things are getting better.

As an octogenarian, she earned a rock-star status for a good reason. Through humor and intellect, she was the embodiment of a protector of our rights. Ginsburg’s tenacious and energy is a model we should all adopt in our careers to achieve success.

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