Reflecting on the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Two students meditate on why you should care about the life and death of this US Supreme Court Justice

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
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In the 1970s, the fight to grant women equality under the US constitution was a losing one, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would become a Supreme Court Justice, convinced the all-male court to take sex discrimination seriously by defending a case on a man’s right to drink beer.

At the time, the women’s liberation movement was pushing for the Supreme Court to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, first proposed in 1920, which would grant women—and men—the constitutional right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sex. But the amendment faced a staunch conservative backlash from those who believed a woman’s role was in the domestic sphere.

The court pushed back the deadline for ratification by a decade, from 1972 to 1982, then did nothing as that deadline came and went. Incidentally, the amendment still hasn’t been ratified to this day.

But Ginsburg, who co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at American Civil Liberties Union, a legal organization aimed at protecting and expanding American civil liberties, foresaw the difficulty in passing the 19th amendment. To convince a Supreme Court composed of nine men who regarded sex discrimination as good for society to take the matter of women’s liberation seriously, she used a surprising strategy—applying the language of the Fourteenth Amendment which granted personhood to freed slaves to a case on unequal drinking ages.

Enter Craig v. Boren, 1976. An Oklahoma statute permitted the sale of 3.2 per cent Alcohol by Volume (ABV) beer—colloquially known as “near beer”—to women over the age of 18 but denied sale to men unless they were over 21. The basis of the law was an outmoded distinction between genders: the belief that women were daintier, more responsible drinkers than rowdy men of the same age.

On behalf of Curtis Craig, Ginsburg argued that unequal drinking ages in Oklahoma violated the Equal Protection Clause, the Fourteenth Amendment, which states, “nor shall any State [...] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The courts agreed. The legal drinking age for women in Oklahoma was raised to 21 and, where the Fourteenth Amendment formerly granted protection from only racial discrimination, it now protects against discrimination on the basis of sex.

Before this landmark case, the Supreme Court had always found sex discrimination to be permissible and applied a very strong legal test called ‘strict scrutiny’ to all cases regarding racial prejudice. Thanks to Ginsburg, a similar but less stringent test is now applied to cases of gender discrimination, too.

Craig v. Boren demonstrates that Ginsburg knew how to play the game in a justice system dominated by old-fashioned men. While the Equal Rights Amendment floundered in the courts, she used pre-existing constitutional law to expand the rights of women by arguing a case she knew the Supreme Court would listen to—a case about a man’s right to drink beer.  

She’d go on to join the ranks of the highest court in the land when President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court in 1993. In 1999, only six years later, Ginsburg was diagnosed with colon cancer for which she received surgery and chemotherapy. Then, in 2009, another diagnosis: pancreatic cancer.

Cancer of the pancreas is essentially a death sentence—most with this diagnosis don’t live longer than five years. Miraculously, she beat the odds, living until Sept. 18, 2020, and remaining on the court through it all.

There never would have been a good time for her to die, but now that she has, and because Trump is still in office, there may be some dire consequences.

It would certainly be sad to see the United States take back positive social advancements like a woman’s right to choose. Let us not forget the dark days when a woman’s very personhood had no legal backing under the constitution—that would be an insult to the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

—Nathan Gallagher, Arts Editor

 

It’s difficult to imagine a world without Ruth Bader Ginsburg in it. Yet, the impact she made to ensure a woman’s basic rights will be felt for generations.

In almost every single aspect of life and wellbeing for American women, discrimination was legal—and Justice Ginsburg set out to change this. In doing so, she made a difference in the lives of the women around her and the generations of women who will follow her.

It was her own experiences during her formative years that began to shape her forward and revolutionary way of thinking. The gender-based barriers of the 1950s that Justice Ginsburg encountered throughout her school years and into her professional years ultimately became central to her life’s work.

Even as a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, she saw a clear path of what a woman could be, although it wasn’t the prevailing thinking of the time. A New York Times article tells the story of a young Ginsburg asking her bookkeeper mother, “‘What is the difference between a bookkeeper in Brooklyn and a Supreme Court justice?’ Her answer: ‘One generation.’”

In one generation, she set out to dismantle discrimination on the basis of gender, which was present in almost every US state law and federal legislature in this time frame, making it easy for employers and firms to deny women a plethora of basic rights.

Today, women are afforded many opportunities and rights that we now take for granted.

To rid the subordination and attitudes of inferiority among women by men was what Justice Ginsburg set out to do—and while some may rightfully argue that her goal has not yet been achieved, she made room for many more young women to achieve it.

The younger generation’s awareness of Justice Ginsburg’s work turned her into a viral icon in her late 80s. Perhaps one of her greatest lessons to the younger generations was that women can work and be mothers at the same time. But above all—all the politics, the polarization, and the disputes over her seat—Ginsburg was a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, and as her granddaughter Clara called her: Bubbie, the Yiddish word for grandmother.

On Friday, many learned of Ginsburg’s passing on the Jewish new year, called Rosh Hashanah, falling on a Friday evening, which also marks the beginning of Shabbat: Judaism’s day of rest, and the seventh day of the week. The simultaneous occurrence of these two events brought further special meaning to Ginsburg’s life.  

As tweeted by writer and book critic Ruth Franklin, “a person who dies on Rosh Hashanah, which began tonight, is a tzaddik, a person of great righteousness.” Ginsburg has appropriately been attributed this title for the work she’s done throughout her fiercely trailblazing career.

With her passing on Rosh Hashanah, her family hadn’t had the proper time to mourn. When an individual passes away on Yom Tov or a Jewish holiday, their funeral services and family’s Shiva services—the week-long mourning period in Judaism for immediate relatives—cannot begin until after the day after

Both the internet and the Republican party had begun thinking of an individual to fill her seat almost immediately after hearing of her passing. It’s harder to grapple with this while watching conservative and liberal representatives battle over the ethical dilemma of her now-empty Supreme Court seat, knowing her loved ones didn’t have the proper time to celebrate her life.

While the politicization of the now-empty Supreme Court seat is inevitable, may Ginsburg’s memory be a blessing, and also a revolution.

—Sasha Cohen, Staff Writer

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