The following selections from Mike Urbaniak’s article about US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg, appeared in the Polish weekly "Wysokie Obcasy" in August 2016.
Since we don’t have any black professors, let’s hire a female one
The young legal trainee with a four-year-old daughter works twice as hard as the others, trying to prove that she is just as good and even better than the men, and that having a child does not get in the way of her meeting her obligations. She is the first to arrive at work and the last to leave. Her husband, Marty, who is building his own career as a tax attorney, takes care of little Jane in the evenings, and always tells his wife, “Ruth, don’t worry. We’ll manage.”
Of course they manage. Ruth Bader Ginsburg completes her judicial clerk applications with an excellent recommendation from U.S. District Court Judge Edmund L Palmieri, for whom she clerked from 1959-61, and has already received employment offers from several New York firms. But she doesn’t accept any of them because she wants to return to university. She starts to teach and do research at Columbia University, with a particular interest in the Swedish legal system.
She travels to Sweden twice, and at the University of Lund discovers something unknown in the United States -- a university preschool for the children of students and staff. Its presence in the school seems to be nothing out of the ordinary, yet the affect on the lives of female students is immense.
It is hard for her to believe the disproportion when she compares levels of women attending university in Sweden to those in the US: 25% vs 3%.
And when she meets a Swedish judge working normally during the eighth month of pregnancy, she is simply in shock. However, it makes so many things seem suddenly possible.
After returning to the States in 1965, she gives birth to a second child, her son James. She also receives a position at Rutgers University in New Jersey. After the departure of Prof. Clyde Ferguson, the only African American among the lecturers there, the law faculty (composed entirely of white men) “opens up to diversity” and decides, “since we don’t have any Black professors, let’s hire a woman.”
Rutgers, then, becomes one of the three universities in America at which women are teaching law (there are about twenty professors in total, nationwide), but it isn’t an idyllic situation. During her pregnancy, RGB conceals her belly, borrowing loose-fitting clothing from her mother-in-law in the fear that the university might not extend her contract.
Yet she is not afraid to speak up, such as when she finds out that women professors are earning lower salaries than men. When she tells this to the dean, Willard Heckel, he reacts with surprise --“Ruth, what’s the matter? After all, your husband earns a good salary!”
In response, and together with the other lecturers, she prepares a class action suit against the university. It quickly proceeds to a settlement and equalization of salaries. Progress.
It’s the same on the other side of the lectern. Women are starting to fill up the classrooms. The reason? It’s the Vietnam War and men are being drafted en masse into the military. Women have to fill the free spaces. Of course, once the doors are open, they can’t close. Suddenly, women become a significantly larger group at law schools (today they are in the majority) and begin to speak out about the way the law discriminates against them.
In 1969, RBG, with three colleagues, makes it into a meeting of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), composed of only men (of course), and demands that measures be taken to increase the number of women law professors and to require that law firms stop discriminating on the basis of sex.
The truth is that even as more women are completing law degrees, they still have trouble teaching or finding work. As a result of her intervention, the AALS creates the Committee on Women in Legal Education, and RBG becomes a member.
This does not escape the attention of Mel Wulf, a brilliant lawyer and one of the directors of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a powerful organization taking on the struggle against the many forms of discrimination in the US.
Road to the top
“Could you take the case of Reed v. Reed?” Wulf asked in the Ginsburg’s kitchen. “Let me read through the case, and I’ll think about it,” RGB replied. She called back the next day: “I’ll take it.”
Starting at the beginning of the 1970s, sex discrimination cases begin flowing into the ACLU offices and they land on the desk of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Sally and Cecil Reed, married but separated in Ohio, were in a dispute over the possessions of their deceased son, a trumpet and $930. The court, ruling in accord with the existing law, which said that the administration of the belongings of a child were the man’s responsibility, had decided in favor of Cecil. Sally saw this as discrimination and filed an appeal which reached the Supreme Court in 1971. Representing her was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who argued that the law granting preference to the man was nothing other than sex discrimination. The Justices unanimously accepted her reasoning, affirming that the Ohio law contradicted the fourteenth amendment to the US Constitution, which says that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The aftermath of this great success is the announcement of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. Its goal is simple: to seek out good cases that demonstrate sex discrimination, take them to the Supreme Court and overturn them. At the head of the project, of course, is RGB, who at the same time has just become a professor at Columbia, where she writes the first textbook in history dedicated to sex discrimination.
She continues to sweep through the Supreme Court like a storm. In 1973, she wins the case of Frontiero v. Richardson. Verdict: military benefits granted to the families of soldiers may not be dependent on the soldier’s gender.
In 1975, she wins the case of Weinberger v.Wiesenfeld. Verdict: Social Security benefits may not differ on the basis of gender.
In 1978, she wins the case of Duren v. Missouri. Verdict: The Missouri law under which jury duty was obligatory for men but optional for women, is ruled unconstitutional. This was the last case presented by Ruth Bader Ginsburg before the Supreme Court.
Two years later, she resigns from the ACLU and begins her career as a judge. President Jimmy Carter appoints her to the D.C. Circuit Court, politically the most important appeals court in the US below the Supreme Court. RBG serves there for thirteen years, and in 1993, upon the retirement of Justice Byron White (appointed by JFK), she receives a call from the White House. Newly elected President Bill Clinton, at the instigation of Attorney General Janet Reno, expresses his intention to name her as the second female appointee to the Supreme Court.
This is a case for Ruth
She joins the court twelve years after Sandra Day O’Connor (the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court), following tough questioning in the Senate, which must approve the President’s nomination.
She is attacked most strongly by opponents of abortion who have been trying since 1973 to overturn Roe v. Wade, which legalized the termination of a pregnancy in the US. RGB simply refuses to answer any question on this topic.
Republican senators accuse her of being unfit for the Supreme Court, because she has no insurance cases in her record, but she replies to them silently, “And how many discrimination cases have you conducted?” Finally, with 96 votes in favor, and three opposed, the Senate approves the President’s nomination. On August 10, 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg takes her oath to serve on the Supreme Court.
It is 1996, and the case of the US v. Virginia arrives at the Supreme Court, concerning the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), an elite military college, which does not accept women. The justices in a 7-1 verdict (one abstention) recognize this as unconstitutional and order VMI to recruit women. Chief Justice William Rehnquist recommends that Sandra Day O’Connor write the majority opinion. Yet knowing how important cases concerning sex discrimination were to RGB. she responds, “No, William, this is for Ruth.” Justice Ginsburg is delighted and has never forgotten her colleague’s generosity.
When, a decade later, Sandra Day O’Connor decides to retire, there is once again only one woman on the Supreme Court. RBG: “The worst times were the years I was alone. The image the public saw when entering the courtroom was eight men, of a certain size, and then this little woman sitting to the side. That was not a good image for the public to see” [Jeffrey Rosen, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is an American Hero,”The New Republic (September 28, 2014)].
Today she is no longer the only woman on the nine-justice Supreme Court. She is eventually joined by Sonia Sotomayor, and then Elena Kagan, so now there are three. Yet after these nominations Ruth Bader Ginsburg is asked if this is enough and she responds that it is not. “Then what number of women on the Supreme Court would satisfy you?” “Nine.”