The Legacy of Dissent: A Tribute to Justice Ginsburg
By: Colleen Joyce
The loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shocked the United States on Friday, September 18. Devastatingly, she passed from complications in her long-standing battle with pancreatic cancer. It is with great honor that we may take a look at her as a leader and model our future actions in light of her legacy.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg began her impeccable resilience throughout her education. Receiving her undergraduate degree at Cornell University, Ginsburg graduated at the top of her class and became a law student at Harvard University. While there, she was one of nine women in her class and balanced both her studies and motherhood, as she became a mother shortly before she began her legal studies. A true testament to both her brilliance and remarkable work ethic, Ginsburg held herself responsible for completing both hers and her husband’s legal work following her husband, Martin Ginsburg’s, testicular cancer diagnosis during their time at law school. Despite her initial education at Harvard, Ginsburg later transferred to Columbia University to complete her Juris Doctor degree, following her husband’s job offer in New York City. She graduated from Columbia once more at the top of her class and proceeded to enter the world of academia post-graduation. She began teaching at Rutgers University in New Jersey during 1963, where she received significantly less pay than that of her male colleagues.
Following her experience in academia, Ginsburg became a champion for gender rights while volunteering for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She fought multiple cases in front of the Supreme Court on the subject of gender discrimination prior to her time on the Supreme Court, including cases such as Reed v. Reed. Argued initially as a result of men getting preference for controlling estates instead of women, Ginsburg crafted arguments and briefs against this law. Monumental in its decision, the courts ruled in favor of Ginsburg’s brief, and thus women were given equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment on the basis of gender. This landmark case jumpstarted Ginsburg’s plight for justice and equality. Following other significant cases like Frontiero v. Richardson, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, and Duren v. Missouri, Ginsburg continued her fight against oppressive laws and was finally appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. There, she continued to influence decisions that set precedence for gender equality.
Famously, Ginsburg detailed the majority decision for United States v. Virginia, which struck down upon the Virginia Military Institute's male-only admissions. Ginsburg noted that the institution failed to provide reasonable and legal justification for discriminating against women. She argued that any counter-program, particularly proposed by the institution, would not be the same as merely allowing women into their program. In her writing, Ginsburg wrote that the VMI “denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature — equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society.” Thus, the decision was made to allow women. In a tremendous decision, the court surprisingly ruled 7-1, which led to the institution, eventually allowing women to engage in education there. Being the final all-male school in the country, the decision was obviously critical to the continuation of women’s rights.
In addition to her majority decisions, Ginsburg is celebrated for various dissents against majority rulings that threatened equality. A perfect example of her famous “dissents” include the 2006 case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. The case originated as Lilly Ledbetter sued her company, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., for gender discrimination under Title VII. The company refused to pay her a salary equivalent to that of her male counterparts and argued that her complaint was not made within a reasonable period of time. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled a close 5-4 in favor of the company, agreeing with their argument of time and felt that the salary differences were not representative of a discriminatory basis. Ginsburg, however, disagreed and wrote the dissenting opinion. In 2009, during the Obama Administration, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was established, citing Justice Ginsburg as an inspiration for the statute.
The following cases are just a few examples of the tremendous influence Justice Ginsberg held in women’s rights. Today, she remains an icon legally, culturally, and politically. She has become the center of various depictions and studied on a wide-scale as a result of her incredible activism while in the Court. Her influence begs the question, though- how could we possibly repay her for her lifetime work? How can we confidently say we are honoring her legacy of dissent following her tragic death?
The answer is this: Until her final breaths, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg fought against tyranny, supremacy, and injustice. She had many titles- a justice, a lawyer, a mother, and a wife- but we must remember her as a pioneer for equality and the glue of democracy. The best way we may honor her legacy is to follow her greatest wishes and advice. Exercise your right to vote in this upcoming election, and say that Ginsberg sent you. Always remember this: We must “fight for things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”