In the early 1950s, a period in American history when the majority of families looked like The Waltons or the Cleavers, a young mother chose Harvard Law School over homemaking. One of only nine women in her class of five hundred men, she felt the incredible pressure to perform at a high level. If she failed, it would not just be viewed as her failure, but failure of her entire gender to achieve at the same level as men. To add to her burden, her husband was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer during his final year of law school. Not one to give up easily, the young mother bravely shouldered the weight of her courses, parenting their three-year-old daughter, getting her husband to and from radiation appointments, caring for him in the aftermath of aggressive treatments, and transcribing all of his coursework so that he didn’t fall behind in classes. As she says, this was when she learned that all she really needed was three hours of sleep. This amazing woman was determined and brave, two qualities that would serve her well in her life. Her name is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but you might know her has the Notorious RBG.
It isn’t often that a woman over the age of eighty becomes a pop culture icon, complete with a full line of merchandise bearing her name and likeness. In the last several years, Ginsburg has developed a cult following and become a symbol of fairness and gender equality in the United States.
Born in Brooklyn in 1933, Ruth grew up an only child. She was very close to her mother who always encouraged her to be two things: a lady and independent. Education was very important to her family, especially her mother, who was incredibly smart and graduated from high school at the age of fifteen. The family chose to send her brother to university, which meant that Ruth’s mother could not continue her education. That must have made quite an impression on her because she always encouraged her daughter to pursue higher education. When Ruth was in high school, her mother became very ill, but was determined to see her daughter graduate. She fought fiercely, but passed away just a few days before Ruth’s graduation.
Ginsburg would follow her mother’s prompting and graduate from college and law school with top honors. Even with her academic accomplishments, finding employment proved difficult because of her gender. She was turned down for several jobs simply because she was a woman. This lit a fire in Ginsburg and made her a fierce advocate for gender equality. In the early 1970s, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter and the Women’s Rights Project (part of the American Civil Liberties Union). She argued six gender discrimination suits before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976, winning five. To prepare for her arguments, Ginsburg says, “I read every federal case that had to do with women’s equality or the lack thereof and every law review article. Now that seems like it was quite an undertaking but in fact, it was easily manageable because there was so little.”
One of the cases Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court involved a man whose wife died during childbirth. When he went to the Social Security office to inquire about survivor benefits, he was turned away because those benefits were only available to women whose husbands passed away. Ginsburg successfully argued that this statute unfairly discriminated against male survivors by not providing them the same benefits as females.
Appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has tirelessly argued for and upheld gender equality. In 2007, she authored the dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, a case involving a female employee who claimed wage discrimination based on her gender. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of her employer, citing the statute of limitations, but Ginsburg called the ruling absurd. She called on Congress to amend Title VII to undo the Court’s decision with legislation. A year later, under President Barack Obama, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed into law. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is credited with being the inspiration behind that law, which makes it easier for employees to win pay discrimination claims.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career and life has been built on her unwavering belief in gender equality. Because of her, women in this country have been elevated to nearly the same place as men with regard to workplace equality. We still have work to be done, but we are certainly closer than we once were, and RBG deserves some of the credit for getting us here. If women everywhere could harness a portion of her passion and commitment, true gender parity in the workplace would be within our reach. In the fight for workplace equality, we would all do well to remember Justice Ginsburg’s advice – “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” It is going to take all of us to truly change the current workplace landscape.