Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Effect On Equal Rights

Being born a Jewish woman in the 1930s already gives people a rough start. But wanting an education on top of that really puts a damper on things. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has faced much adversity in her life as a smart, persistent woman but she did indeed persist and now sits as a Justice on the Supreme Court, fighting for the constitutional rights of all people she comes across.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was raised in a time when women were restricted to merely household duties and had little room, for advancement.

Born on March 19, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York, Ginsburg’s mother, Cecelia, encouraged and pushed her daughter to be more than what was at the time acceptable of a woman by implementing within her a great love for education and knowledge. Ginsburg was even quoted by as saying, “My mother told me two things constantly. One has to be a lady, and the other was to be independent. The study of law was unusual for women of my generation.

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For most girls growing up in the 40s, the most important degree was not your B.A., but your M.R.S.” Mrs. Bader did not get to see her daughter however walk across the stage in her cap and gown to receive her diploma, as she passed only days before the event.

Following her high school graduation Ginsburg continued her pursuit of knowledge and attended Cornell University. It was here that she met her husband Martin Ginsburg and graduated at the top of her class.

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A week after graduating Ginsburg married Martin and moved to Fort Still, Oklahoma where they had their daughter Jane in 1955. In 1956 Ginsburg resumed her academic career and attended Harvard Law School. As 1 of 9 female students in the approximately 500-person class, Ginsburg faced many challenges for “taking a man’s spot” at the college. Unarguably though one of the largest challenges she faced was after her husband was diagnosed with Testicular Cancer in 1956. Ginsburg persevered however, keeping her husband up to date with his schooling, raising their daughter as well as keeping her place as the top student in her class while facing gender-based discrimination. When her husband finally recovered he graduated from Harvard and accepted a position in NYC at a law firm. As Ruth only had one year left, she transferred to Columbia Law School and graduated in 1959 tied for first in her class.

With her outstanding record Ginsburg should have had people begging to hire her. However, that was not the case. After many, many, many failed attempts of finding a job, she was finally able to land a Clerkship with District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri. Following her clerkship, she became a professor at Rutgers University. Here she was forced to conceal her pregnancy with baggy clothing, in fear of being fired. Later in 1972 Ginsburg began teaching at Columbia University and became the first female in the school’s history to earn tenure

While teaching at Columbia, Ginsburg also served as the director and counsel of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. Her first oral argument was Frontiero v. Richardson. The case dealt with Lieutenant Sharon Frontiero and her husband’s finances. Frontiero was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. Here she lived with her husband Joseph who himself was a military veteran and a full-time student at a college in Montgomery. Mandated by federal law spouses of military members were granted a supplemental housing allowance and on base health care. The military members “dependents” however was aimed more at male service members rather than female. As a female service member “Sharon was required to prove her husband relied on her for more than half of his expenses before her family would be deemed eligible.” While Sharon did pay most of the expenses she didn’t quite meet the halfway point that was required.

As the case rose to the Supreme Court, Frontiero’s attorneys asked the ACLU for help. Ginsburg wrote for the ACLU a seventy-page amicus brief in support of Frontiero. The brief described the long history of discrimination against women and the Supreme Court’s position that “distinction by sex was rational and therefore constitutional. This stance allowed legislators to “draw…a ‘sharp line between the sexes.’” Ginsburg’s main point was that “legislative line-drawing based on sex should, like race classifications, be labeled ‘suspect,’ so the court should extend to legal distinctions based on gender the same ‘strict scrutiny’ the justices in the early 1970s reserved (and still give) to race-based legal distinctions.” Frontiero’s attorneys felt there was no need to make the argument, so Ginsburg and the ACLU had to submit it in their amicus brief. Ginsburg split the time of her first oral argument in front of the Supreme Court with Frontiero’s attorney. This was the first time Ginsburg delivered her “sex as suspect” argument in person to the Justices.

This case undoubly affected equal rights by granting women and men the same benefits in the military. She was able to successfully argue in front of an all male court that the condition not only disadvantaged women but also men who are dependents. The court decided that it in fact vilolated the “Due Process Clause and the equal protection requirments that clause implied.” Despite this major win the court would not hold sex- discrimination to the same level of race-discrimination. The case in short aided those who may be in an untraditional situation or in an untraditional role in their marriage.

Two years after the Frotiero case Ginsburg got a case which was a perfect fit for her mission . Stephen Wiesenfeld had the undortunate tradgdy of losing his wife in childbirth. Prior to this event Wiesenfeld owned and operated a small business and for the most part stayed home and ran the hpousehold. His wife Paula on the other hand was a schoolteacher and therefore received social security beneifts. Wiesenfeld planned to take advantage of these benefits and use them so he could become a stay at home parent and raise his son. He was shocked to discover however that only a women’s minor children could receive benefits and not their widower. This was odd because if a woman was left widowed her and her children could receive benefits. Wiesenfeld was outraged and eventually put into touch with Ginsburg.

Wiesenfeld filed his suit and “sought a declaration that $402 (g) is unconstitutional to the extent that men and women are treated differently, an injunction restraining appellant from denying benefits under $402 (g) solely on the basis of sex, and payment of past benefits commencing with June 1972, the month of the original application,” on behalf of all men in similar situations. The court addressed that the sex-based distinction in $402 (g) was the same counteracted in Frontiero v. Richardson. Therefore, the court held that $402 (g) was in violation to the right of equal protection guaranteed by the fifth amendment. The law was then struck down.

This case was essentially the same thing Ginsburg had argued in Frontier v. Richardson, only this time she got the extra vote she needed for gender and race discrimination to be tolerated at the same level. Both cases helped families who did not meet the ideal image of the time. She also helped men and families who may have been in the same situation as Wiesenfeld and granted them the ability to worry about their child’s upbringing rather than how much money they have.

Ginsburg continued working for the ACLU, handling cases involving sex-discrimination. Some of which included Craig v. Boren which dealt with an Oklahoma law that permitted girls 18 and over to drink alcohol but men had to be 21. Another was Duren v. Missouri. This case dealt with the disproportionate jury in a man’s murder trial since women had the option to not partake in jury duty.

With the retirement of Justice Byron White also came an open seat in the court and a large decision for president Clinton. Clinton had a multitude of options for the position but, although not his first choice, he decided on Ginsburg for the nomination. Although most would assume conservatives and republicans would not support her they did and so did liberals. Ginsburg did not believe in activism in the court but rather protecting people’s constitutional rights. Conservatives were glad to have someone who wasn’t pushing for a bunch of liberal and new ideas while liberals were excited because they finally had someone who could go up against the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. While most confirmations of nominees involve “more a political brawl than a deliberative review of a nominee’s records,” Ginsburg was surprisingly unproblematic. On August 10,1993 Ginsburg became the second female jurist after a Senate vote of 96 to 3 confirmed her.

While the cases which Ginsburg argued as a litigator focused on the consequent discrimination of men in order to show the ridiculous difference in the way men and women were treated, she did face many notable cases as a Justice that dealt with the direct mistreatment of women. One of these notable cases was United States v. Virginia. The Virginia Military Insitute (VMI) had and still has a long and honorable record as one of the best military schools in the country. Their only issue was they refused to admit women.

They claimed it was because women could not handle the vigourus program, so they created the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VMIL). The school was created at a women-only liberal arts school, Mary Baldwin College. This “alternative’ was created only after the United States filed a suit against the state of Virginia for not offering women the same opportunities for women and it in no way provided the same experience as the men’s school.

When the case was brought to the court in 1996 the majority agreed the VMIL was insufficient. Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion saying that the two schools were not equal in their methods or the opportunities they would provide students after graduation. Then VMI carries a legacy of leadership and dignity while the VMIL was just an afterthought. Justice Rehnquist also agreed that the VMIL was no good enough only because separate but equal can only apply if the two schools are comparable which they just weren’t. The court held that “Military training facilities that segregate men and women without a compelling reason violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, even if the women’s facility is roughly comparable to the men’s facility.”

This case helped equal rights along by showing how men and women were not given the same opportunities and how separate but equal is never really equal. One of the major factors in the case was Ginsburg’s point that the schools just didn’t give women the same chances as the long reputation the VMI provided men. The case also showed how race and sex-based are similar with the separate but equal policy. Like black people during the time of Jim Crow laws, these women were given something that was said to be equivalent to the men’s just separate. This case proved that wrong however in that they are no way equal. 

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Effect On Equal Rights. (2022, Jun 05). Retrieved from

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