The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has sparked a worldwide outpouring place grief. Part of this grief is due to her unmatched status as a feminist icon, pioneer for women in the legal profession, and beyond.

Already there is a lot of interest in her departure and what it means for the US Supreme Court and the wider political landscape. We must also reflect on her legacy to fully understand this.

Ginsburg, along with about 500 men, enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1956. She was one of nine women in Harvard Law School’s year. Erwin Griswold (the Harvard dean) asked nine women why they felt qualified to take the place of a man, reflecting the prevailing mindset at the time.

Ginsburg’s response, that she wanted more to understand Marty’s career in law (he was a year ahead of her at Harvard), is a lie. It ignores the fact of her immense contribution to public life over the next six decades.

In a profession that was traditionally dominate predominantly by men, the number nine would be significant. She was the second woman to be appoint to the Supreme Court’s nine-judge Supreme Court in its history, and she did so in 1993.

Ginsburg responded to recent questions regarding when enough female judges. He said that there was enough when there were nine Supreme Court women. Ginsburg famously counter this statement, acknowledging that many people are shock at the response. There have been nine men and no one has ever asked that question. This exchange shows how deeply ingrained was the notion that judging is men’s work.

A Powerful Place Mind

Ginsburg was an academic long before President Bill Clinton decided to nominate Ginsburg for the Supreme Court. She was the second woman to ever teach full-time law at Rutgers University, and the first woman who became a Columbia Law School tenured professor. Ginsburg was also a feminist litigator who led the American Civil Liberties Union’s campaign to ensure gender equality.

Ginsburg was nominate to the Supreme Court. It was an uncontroversial nomination. The Senate confirmed Ginsburg with 96 votes to three.

While there were concerns about her being a radical doctrinaire female feminist, her record at the United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit (she had been appointed by President Jimmy Carter 1980) bolstered her credentials.

Ginsburg spent the 1970s working on a strategy for securing women’s equality. She would call her approach the “The Ginsburg Approach to Legality.”

  • Constitutional principle of equal citizenship status for men and women
  • She sought to establish in a number of cases
  • Like race, sex is an immutable, visible characteristic that has no relationship to ability.

She argued that legal classifications based on sex should also be subject to the same “strict scrutiny” as in cases where distinctions or classifications based on race were made. To put it bluntly, sex pigeonholing should not be allowed. Whether she was representing men or women plaintiffs in a case, her argument was that the law allowed for different treatment of men and women.

Keep women in their place. It is a lower place than that occupied by men in society.

Outside The Court, And Inside Too

Some feminist theorists have expressed reservations over the possibility of a legal system that was design by men to exclude women being fully adapted to ensure equality for women.

Some feminists see great promise in law reform. Others are more cautious. Professor Mari Matsuda’s two-pronged strategy, which states that stand outside the courtroom is possible at times and stand inside it, reflects this tension.

Ginsburg’s legacy as a lawyer and lifelong learner reflects this latter approach. Ginsburg’s faith in law can seen in her willingness to take a stand in the courtroom, literally as a judge and litigator, to change existing legal categories. Her approach was more reconstructive than radical, which is not to say that her ideas weren’t revolutionary at the time.

Ginsburg attempted to rebuild sex roles, and stressed that men and women were not diminish by stereotypes based upon sex.

Ginsburg didn’t just advocate for formal equality. This is the idea that equality can achieve by treating everyone equally. She advocated affirmative action to ensure equality of opportunity.

She preferred incremental change over radical change because she believed that this would minimize the risk of backlash. Preferred incrementalism and her critique of the 1973 Roe v Wade case (the case that shaped US reproductive rights).

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