Despite her small physical stature, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a giant. She changed the world for women. For more than a decade, until her first judicial appointment in 1980, she led the fight against gender discrimination and successfully argued six landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, prevailing on five of the six cases.
Justice Ginsburg contributed substantially, profoundly, and forcefully, to help bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice. Women and minority groups will never forget the incredible strides she took to lead the path forward for equality. As Justice Souter so succinctly said, “Ruth Ginsburg was one of the members of the court who achieved greatness before she became a great justice.” And accordingly, she will be remembered as such.
During her funeral procession, more than 100 clerks served as honorary pallbearers and stood guard to meet her casket as it arrived at the high court. Friday, Justice Ginsburg will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol, becoming the first woman in history so honored.
She holds such regard and loyalty because of her unmatched intellect, generous spirit and kindness.
It’s notable that her work against gender discrimination did not end upon her appointment as only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, following a thirteen-year tenure as a judge on the D.C. Circuit, in 1993.
It is largely because of Ginsburg, whether in her capacity as an attorney or as a Justice of the Supreme Court, that women cannot be discriminated against for pregnancy, cannot be barred from attending state-funded schools, have the same rights to financial independence as men and can apply for bank accounts, credit cards, and mortgages without a male co-signor, and serve on juries.
In honor of Justice Ginsburg, we remember some of her landmark cases that paved the way for equality for women’s rights.
Cases argued and won before the U.S. Supreme Court:
Frontiero v. Richardson, 1972
This case was the first time Ginsburg argued before the court. Sharon Frontiero, a woman in the U.S. Air Force, applied for benefits for her dependent husband, she was told she’d have to prove he was a dependent, even though men in the Air Force didn’t have to prove that their wives were dependent on them. Ginsburg argued that gender-based discrimination hurt men as well. She said “Why did the framers of the 14th Amendment regard racial [discrimination] as odious? Because a person’s skin color bears no necessary relationship to ability. Similarly, a person’s sex bears no necessary relationship to ability.”
Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 1974
This case involved a provision of the Social Security Act that granted survivor benefits to a widow with minor children but not to a widower with minor children. The court struck this down as discriminatory, rejecting the law’s use of a gender-based generalization as insufficient to justify the denigration of the work performed by women.
Edwards v. Healy, 1974
This case involved a challenge to a Louisiana law that exempted women from jury service unless they wrote in declaring they wished to serve. The Supreme Court, after hearing oral argument in the case, sent it back to the district court without opinion. The court vindicated Ginsburg’s position in a companion case, Taylor v. Louisiana.
Califano v. Goldfarb, 1976
Like Weinberger, this case involved a sex-based difference in treatment of survivors under the Social Security Act: a widow automatically received survivors’ benefits; a widower received such benefits only if he was getting more than half his support from his deceased wife. The court struck down this gender discrimination.
Duren v. Missouri., 1978
Ginsburg said the case involved discrimination during the jury selection process. She said jury duty was optional for women at that time in Missouri, which meant that women would receive automatic exemptions if they asked. Ginsburg argued that jury duty should not be optional for women because their service was just as valuable as men’s service.
Iconic Supreme Court Opinions and Well-Known Dissents:
United States v. Virginia, 1996
Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion that would serve as a milestone moment for women’s rights and university admission policies. Virginia Military Institute barred women’s admission to the university. Ginsburg questioned its merits. “Neither federal nor state government acts compatibly with equal protection when a law or official policy denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature-equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities,” Ginsburg wrote.
Olmstead v. L.C., 1999
This case proved a victory for people with disabilities when Ginsburg wrote, “States are required to place persons with mental disabilities in community settings rather than in institutions when the State’s treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate, the transfer from institutional care to a less restrictive setting is not opposed by the affected individual, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities.”
Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 2007
Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, a rare practice, to highlight her criticism of the majority for opinions she believed undermine women’s rights. In 2009, President Obama signed the “Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009,” overturning Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which recognizes the reality of wage discrimination.
Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015
This was a monumental case for same-sex couples and for the rights of LGBTQ Americans. Ginsburg stated during oral arguments: “We have changed our idea about marriage…Marriage today is not what it was under the common law tradition, under the civil law tradition.”
Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 2016
The Court’s decision helped strike down the Texas law that imposed several regulations on abortion clinics, which were designed to deter women from obtaining abortion procedures. Ginsburg stated: “When a State severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners, faute de mieux, at great risk to their health and safety.”