A mere 66 years ago, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from Cornell University, women attending college were not only uncommon, but stigmatized. Ginsburg spent her life advocating to end the gender discrimination that made this inequality a reality.
Since her passing this year, we need look no further than our own campus, the College of William and Mary, to see some of the changes her work helped to inspire. Aside from an obvious change, our student body is majority female, I have seen some of Ginsburg’s most famous feminist quotes written across the sidewalks and joined a conversation with the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department about RBG’s legacy. None of these things would have seemed possible when Ginsburg herself was in college.
Some of the most important lessons she taught us were not just in what she accomplished, but how she accomplished her goals. Throughout her education and career, Ginsburg was given many reasons to doubt that advancements in gender equality would be possible. After graduating from Columbia University Law School in 1959, she was unable to secure a job from any law firms simply because she was a Jewish woman and mother, despite graduating at the top of her class. One of her earlier jobs was as a professor at Rutgers Law School, where she was paid less than her male colleagues. These are just a few examples of the impact gender discrimination had on her life, but she did not let these setbacks hold her back for long. If anything, these experiences helped motivate her to fight tirelessly for women’s rights.
Throughout her career as a lawyer, Ginsburg developed many unique strategies to make her argument for gender equality and equal protection under the law. One of my favorite examples of this was how she took on gender discrimination cases against both women and men because she knew male judges would be more likely to see the faults in strict gender roles and gender discrimination if she brought them a case with which they would be more likely to understand and sympathize. She went on to win the Supreme Court case over the right for women to be included in jury service, as well as the right for widowers to have Social Security benefits, among other things.
During her time as a Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg helped lead many important decisions with coherent arguments. One of the most noteworthy for women’s rights was United States v. Virginia. In the majority opinion, Ginsburg affirmed that the Virginia Military Institute could not prohibit women from joining their college because it violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
“She kept fighting, even when the odds were bleak, and that’s why she made this country a better place for young women to grow up in.”
Another of Ginsburg’s most powerful tactics was the way in which she dissented on the Supreme Court. She used sharp and pointed dissent to continue fighting for her point of view. Even when she didn’t win, she didn’t give in. She understood that some things would take time, which is why her approach to reaching gender equality has been referred to as like “knitting a sweater.” She would continuously and relentlessly keep looking for new methods to educate her opponents and make her case.
She never took the easy way out, no matter how difficult her circumstances. To quote another of history’s feminists, Eleanor Roosevelt, “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
RBG believed. She believed change was possible. She kept fighting, even when the odds were bleak, and that’s why she made this country a better place for young women to grow up in. RBG’s devotion to gender equality is something that should continue to motivate us to further eliminate the sexism and gender inequality that persists in this country.
I have noticed, often in my own generation, a growing cynicism and lack of faith in the ability for change to be enacted. RBG’s life is a testament to the progress that can be made in one person’s lifetime. It’s not always as fast as we want, but it is possible. As our country seems to only be growing more polarized, it’s important to remember that we accomplish nothing by believing people are incapable of change and that circumstances will never improve. As RBG has taught us, we must persevere. Nothing worthwhile comes easy, it’s all about figuring out new ways to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
Email Caitlin Noe at firstname.lastname@example.org.