A Tribute to Justice Ginsburg, and A Recognition of the Legal Barriers That Remain

On September 18, 2020, the day Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed, The New York Times published an article announcing her death with a tribute to her life and work, including this quote:

“Her late-life rock stardom could not remotely have been predicted in June 1993, when President Bill Clinton nominated the soft-spoken, 60-year-old judge, who prized collegiality and whose friendship with conservative colleagues on the federal appeals court where she had served for 13 years left some feminist leaders fretting privately that the president was making a mistake.”[1]

Her lightspeed rise to fame across the United States late in her career was so swift and powerful it inspired best-selling books, award-winning films, swag, and social media fan accounts. Perhaps for some, this celebrity status was particularly unexpected as Justice Ginsburg was not the first, but the second female justice on the Supreme Court of the United States, and shared the bench with two other female jurors at the time of her death. However,  Sex & World Peace, one of many books based on the work of the WomanStats project, quotes Nicholas Kristof and Esther Duflo concerning the difference between the “first woman” elected in communities across the world and those serve after her:

“…ordinary villagers themselves judged the [first] women as having done a worse job, and so most women were not re-elected. That seemed to result from simple prejudice…[however,] such prejudices can be overridden after voters actually see female leaders in action. While the first ones received dismal evaluations, the second round of female leaders in the villages were rated the same as men. ‘Exposure reduces prejudice,’ Professor Duflo suggested.”[2]

Justice Ginsburg in her chambers in 2013. Credit: Todd Heisler and the New York Times

Regardless of whether her popularity was possible due to the path paved by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, there really is no ignoring her pop culture icon status. Justice Ginsburg’s enduring commitment to defeating legal discrimination on the basis of sex was the fertilizer from which her stardom sprouted. Throughout her life, she took countless, deliberate steps as a law student, lawyer, professor, and judge to battle inequalities blocking the full realization of women’s rights. Indeed, at every step, she fought persistently to overcome statutory barriers to women’s rights.[3]

Justice Ginsburg’s enduring commitment to defeating legal discrimination on the basis of sex was the fertilizer from which her stardom sprouted…Indeed, at every step, she fought persistently to overcome statutory barriers to women’s rights.

Such a battle is necessarily undertaken by a woman, because, as she stated herself over 30 years ago:

“‘The justices did not comprehend the differential treatment of men and women in jury selection and other legal contexts as in any sense burdensome to women,’ she said in a 1988 speech. She added: ‘From a justice’s own situation in life and attendant perspective, his immediate reaction to a gender discrimination challenge would likely be: But I treat my wife and daughters so well, with such indulgence. To turn in a new direction, the court first had to gain an understanding that legislation apparently designed to benefit or protect women could have the opposite effect.’”[4]

Justice Ginsburg was a giant of a judge in her own right, but her entire focus, her life purpose, seemed to be a sacrifice consecrated for the equality of women at every step of her remarkable career.

So, upon her death, women across the United States wonder: are women like Justice Ginsburg once in a generation? Perusing the biographies of current and retired Supreme Court justices, qualifying experience is peppered with Ivy League schools, honors, prestigious clerkships, big legal firm partnerships, government counsel appointments, and professorships, it’s obvious complex life experiences are necessary qualifications for the Supreme Court. The real question of how to achieve parity or even majority on the highest court in the land is, then, rooted in women’s employment and education opportunities, especially those considered “prestigious.” The WomanStats database can help us see the full story of whether women are able to fully prepare themselves to become able advocates for our sex by outlining employment ratios and post-secondary education rates.

According to the variable GP-DATA-6, in 2015 Fortune reported that women make up 45% of associates in law firms.[5] Near parity, 45% doesn’t seem too bad, until we dig a little deeper with ASR-DATA-1. Although we make up 45% of associates, women account for only 20% of partners, and 17% of equity partners in law firms.[6] On the other hand, men make up 64.5% of lawyers, causing me to wonder about how many own their own law firms, stay in law, or hold government appointments compared to their female counterparts.[7] These numbers come in the face of the fact that half of law school graduates are women,[8] but women make less than their male counterparts in every field, illustrated in ERBG-DATA-1. “Today, about one-third of active judges are women who serve as U.S. Court of Appeals judges, U.S. District Court judges, U.S. Magistrate judges, and U.S. Bankruptcy Court judges.”[9] (If you are interested in some of their lives, I suggest you check out the link in the footnotes, where you can read and watch videos about their pathways to the bench.)

Justice Ginsburg described her life-long battle for her sisters succinctly by quoting 19th Century abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sarah Grimke, “But I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright.”[10] The feet on the neck of womankind has long been the burden of unequal laws written, administered, and adjudicated by men. Justice Ginsburg definitely contributed to women’s liberation in the States by leaps and bounds, but are we done? NO!

The WomanStats Project not only monitors the participation of women in government, but also monitors the legal rights of women in almost every topic in the database. Two examples include AOM-LAW-1, which collects data on the legal age of marriage. Here you can learn that in the United States, “laws in 23 states do not set a minimum age below which a child cannot marry, meaning that those states’ laws are weaker than child marriage laws in countries like Afghanistan, Honduras, and Malawi.”[11] In CUST-LAW-1 we learn that “across America, there are state laws that don’t protect women who became pregnant through rape from being forced to share their children with their rapists.”[12]

An in-depth review of the WomanStats law variables illuminates the work yet to be accomplished to establish women’s rights in the United States. We are indebted to Justice Ginsburg for her unflinching advocacy in the face of discrimination on the basis of sex, for giving her life to lift us up as equals, and for giving the work of equal rights in the eyes of the law an immeasurable and crucial boost. Because of RBG, we know just how critical the judicial presence of women is to the equality of women in the eyes of the law, and therefore, imperative to the fate of nations. May she now rest in peace, but in honor of her memory may we never rest until we permanently free womankind from the proverbial feet of unequal power before the law.

-E.P.B.


[1] Linda Greenhouse, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court’s Feminist Icon, Is Dead at 87,” New York Times, September, 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/18/us/ruth-bader-ginsburg-dead.html.

[2] Hudson, Valerie, et al. Sex and World Peace (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 53.

[3] See Films: On the Basis of Sex (2018)and RBG (2018).

[4] Greenhouse, “Ruth,” (emphasis added)

[5] Peter D. Kiernan, “How women can restore America’s middle class,” Fortune, June 11, 2015, https://fortune.com/2015/06/11/how-women-can-restore-americas-middle-class/.

[6] Valerie Young, “Female Grads Outearn Men – And It Still Doesn’t Matter!” Mom-Mentum, Access date (19 December 2015).

[7] Mona Chalabi, “Dear Mona, How Many Flight Attendants Are Men?” Five Thirty Eight, publication date (3 October 2014) , access date (12 March 2015)

https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/dear-mona-how-many-flight-attendants-are-men/.

[8] 2011 World Development Report: Gender Equality and Development, The World Bank, Washington, D.C., 17 September 2012.

[9] “Women’s History Month,” United States Courts, Accessed September 28, 2020, https://rb.gy/lmspwf.

[10] “Sarah Grimke,” Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum, Accessed September 28, 2020, https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/heritage_floor/sarah_grimke; Film RBG (2018).

[11] “United States,” Girls Not Brides, Accessed September 28, 2020, https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/child-marriage/united-states/

[12] Thom Patterson, “‘I have to text my rapist’: Victims forced to parent with attackers,” CNN, November 18, 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/11/17/health/rape-parental-rights/index.html.

Image Sources

RBG in her chambers: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/18/us/ruth-bader-ginsburg-dead.html

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