The Civil Rights Pioneer: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Time Travelling the life of Justice Ruth

On 19th September, 2020, the cultural and liberal icon and the sitting judge of the Supreme Court of the United States, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg succumbed to metastatic pancreatic cancer at the age of 871. Not just the United States, but the whole world mourned her death. The world has the utmost respect for her because of her noble contribution to society. The liberals even call her as the civil rights hero. The upcoming generations saw her as a ray of hope and a resolute champion of justice.

Justice Ruth Bader’s journey to become the 2nd women judge in the US Supreme Court was full of emotional surprises. Brought up in a low-income, work class neighbourhood in Brooklyn, she lost her mother one day before her graduation day. She became pregnant at an age of 21 and was in a state of dilemma where she was confused whether she should prioritize the role of her mother or whether she should follow her passion of studying law at Harvard where she had to encounter a male-dominated, hostile environment for women. However, she chose to balance both at the same time and even outshined academically breaking some of the stereotypes.

Justice Ruth Bader’s journey from being a law student, then becoming a professor and eventually arguing some of the landmark cases as a lawyer and  finally holding the seat at the topmost court of the USA; will remain always celebrated as she never hesitated in openly challenging the patriarchal notions and gender discrimination birthed and glooming in all these institutions at that time.  Justice Ruth Bader’s appointment to the Supreme Court as a judge in the year 1993 by President Bill Clinton2 was a triumphant moment for all the women and liberal representatives and especially for her because that appointment was a big-win for her against the forces of gender disparity and to enshrine a new light for gender neutrality.

Justice Ruth’s noble contribution to society

She has always remained a staunch believer in balancing the equation of genders. Neither she aligned herself towards pro-women group nor did she promote any patriarchal ideologies. She aimed to have a gender sensitized and a gender-neutral regime where every person is seen equally before the law and every person gets the equal protection of the law. Her movement was not against the series of isolated inequality but rather implementing the true letter and spirit of the law as articulated in the Fourteenth Amendment3 which promises equal protection of the law and bars discrimination based on sex.

Sitting at the highest court of Justice in the USA as the only female judge with other eight male judges, Justice Ruth never vacillated in taking an opinion even if such opinion was dissenting in nature. Her liberal views never failed to attack the conservative walls resulting in providing a dignified life to every human being without any discrimination. Her landmark ruling in the case of the United States v. Virginia4 substantiates the above point. In this case, Justice Ruth writing the majority opinion struck down the Virginia Military Institutes’ traditional admission policy which allows only men to take admission in that programme. In the majority opinion, she held that such policy is in violation of Fourteenth amendment’s equal protection clause and stated that all gender-based classifications today” should be evaluated with “heightened scrutiny.”

Similarly, in the case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear5 where the pay discrimination case was rejected on technical grounds, Justice Ruth through her dissenting opinion stated that the majority opinion is out of tune with the realities of wage discrimination and opined that “the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.” She further asked the Congress’ court to correct this Court’s parsimonious reading of Title VII (a provision that requires discrimination complaints to be made within 180 days of the employer’s discriminatory conduct). Certainly, she faired in her attempt as two years later Congress passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act6 and nullified the Court’s decision. The Act articulated that each discriminatory pay check resets the 180-day limit to file a claim and therefore limitation period was given a new interpretation.

Not just as a judge but Justice Ruth has contributed to the society even as an arguing counsel in some of the landmark cases. One of the famous cases is Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld7 in which Justice Ruth as a lawyer for the appellee challenged the Social Security benefit of being violative of Due Process Clause and of being unfairly discriminating on the basis of sex. It was because the Social Security Act provides benefits based on the earnings of a deceased husband available to both children and the wife whereas it provides the benefits for a deceased wife available only to the children and not to the husband. The Court through a majority of 8-0 ruled in the favour of the appellee and held that the Social Security benefits to be gender discriminating. Thus, the benefit was extended to both the surviving parent regardless of their gender. Similarly, in the case of Craig v. Boren8 she argued against the Oklahoma law that allowed women to buy beer at age of 18 but forbade men to buy till the age of 21 and got it struck down as it violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

Road Ahead

Undeniably, her contribution to the society was always in line with attacking the notions of gender discrimination rather than being radical in favour of any particular gender. Justice Ruth contributed immensely towards eradicating the problem of sex discrimination, gender inequality, women’s rights, same-sex marriage, and while doing all this, she never went all nuclear but rather followed an approach which made her worked within the limits of the domain she was associated with. Nonetheless, Justice Ruth did all this singlehandedly even after breathing in a male-dominated environment and eventually turned out to be a face that represents courage, power, and strength.

As her legacy comes to an end after her demise, the burden has shifted now on the society to follow the path as left by Justice Ruth. Through her work, she has already highlighted the roots of the problem. The members of the society are now required to tune themselves to combat the male-dominated judiciary and parliamentary halls. Gender neutrality should be brought through encouraging reforms starting from the stage of sources of power that are Parliament, Executive and the Judiciary. A policy that devices the opportunity of equal representation of all the genders in these powerhouses should be formulated. Nonetheless, Justice Ruth’s effort will not go in vain as she will always be remembered as a woman who challenged the past, shaped the present and guided the future.



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