A Closer Look at Ruth Bader Ginsburg

by Angela N. Johnson

Photo Courtesy: Thelmagazine.com

Stephanie Francis Ward, journalist for the ABA Journal wrote the October 1, 2010 cover story, “Family Ties,” detailing both the private and public lives of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This article provides interesting insight on Ginsburg’s path to success, fight for gender equality, and how her husband, Martin, was her greatest supporter.  Ginsburg was nominated by President Bill Clinton and confirmed for the United States Supreme Court in 1993, making her the second female justice to serve on the high court.  Husband, Martin Ginsburg played an important role in Ginsburg’s success; “Their marriage – and the sharing of expectations and parenting responsibilities – impelled both Ginsburgs to achieve” (Ward).  A colleague remembers, “At one point Ginsburg [responding to calls about her son, James] said, ‘This boy has a father – call him,’ and instructed the school to alternate calls between herself and her husband” (Ward).  According to Ginsburg, “A child should have two caring parents who share the joys and often the burdens.  It really does take a man who regards his wife as his best friend, his equal, his true partner in life. . . It takes women and men who are feminists.  By feminists I mean people who think women should have equal chances to do whatever their talent permits them to do” (Ward).  At the time Ginsburg was attending law school first at Harvard, then Columbia (she transferred to be with her husband who found employment in NYC), day cares and nursery schools were rare.  The fact her husband was willing to share the child care responsibilities allowed Ginsburg to devote time to her studies. Though she says, “I attribute to my daughter the responsibility for why I was such a good law student.  I went home, played with Jane, had dinner and then I was ready to go back to the books.  It was the pause that refreshes” (Ward).  Martin Ginsburg died in the summer of 2010, “In August, Ginsburg told the Associated Press that her work helps her cope with the loss of her husband, and she has no immediate plans to retire” (Ward).

According to Ward, “Ginsburg was selected to both the Harvard and Columbia law reviews.  And despite being tied for first place in the Columbia class of 1959 and earning a glowing recommendation from the dean of Harvard Law School, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter refused to hire her as a clerk” (Ward).  “In 1963 she joined the Rutgers Law School faculty.  While there she co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first U.S. law journal to focus solely on women.  She also started taking gender discrimination cases on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union” (Ward).  One of her first clients was Stephen C. Wiesenfield, a widower whose wife died in childbirth.  He was unable to collect social security benefits, which would ordinarily be granted to women whose husbands died. In this case, Wiesenfield, being husband/beneficiary was denied the same benefits afforded to widows.  His late wife was a schoolteacher and provided most of the couple’s income. Mr. Wiesenfiled wrote a New Jersey newspaper about his experience. A colleague at Rutgers saw the published letter and brought it to Ginsburg.  Ginsburg was compelled to take it on; the landmark case, Weinberger v. Wiesenfield, made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1975.  The court found that widowers and widows with minor children are entitled to Social Security benefits when a wage earner dies.

According to Ward, “One of Ginsburg’s early interests pertained to faculty salaries.  While at Rutgers, Ginsburg discovered that her salary was lower than those of her male colleagues.  She took part in a class action lawsuit against the university that was later settled” (Ward). Additionally, Ginsburg persuaded her female colleagues at Columbia to challenge the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund after discovering women were being paid lower monthly retirement benefits based on the false premise that women live longer than men and therefore would still receive the same amount as men, just over a longer period. 

Furthering the pursuit of equal justice for men and women, Ginsburg took on the Supreme Court case, Duren v. Missouri (1979).  The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery by an all-male jury.  State law exempted women and Ginsburg successfully argued this exemption violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights to an impartial jury. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction and remanded the case to trial.  Five additional cases were overturned and ordered re-trial in light of the court’s ruling in Duren. Harlin v. Missouri, (439 U.S. 459), Lee v. Missouri, (439 U.S. 461), Arrington v. Missouri, Burnfin v. Missouri, Combs v. Missouri and Minor v. Missouri.

According to Joseph Levin, a Montgomery, Alabama lawyer and co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, “She’s extraordinarily thorough and very composed in the way she presents things.  What I learned from her was that these were issues she was totally committed to, and she would be very aggressive pursuing them” (Ward).  Levin worked with Ginsburg as co-counsel for Sharron Frontiero, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant who was denied housing and medical benefits for her husband.  Prior to Ginsburg’s work on this case, Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), servicemen, like other working men, were considered to earn wages for himself and his family.  The same was not true for women wage earners, who were assumed to earn wages only for themselves and not contribute to familial incomes or dependents. The Frontiero case was Ginsburg’s first in front of the United States Supreme Court.

Ginsburg is truly an extraordinary women, advocate, and justice.  “Between 1973 and 1979, while teaching, running the Women’s Rights Project and raising two children, Ginsburg argued six cases in the U.S. Supreme Court” (Ward).  Cooking, however, is not Ginsburg’s forte.  She remembers, “Dinner, by her hand, was usually frozen vegetables and grilled meat that had been defrosted.  Once a teenager, Jane took over the task with her father, who was known as a masterful cook” (Ward). 

Through this article, I find Ginsburg’s early approach to gender equality extremely fascinating; reflecting her genius, I am sure, she sought cases where the discriminated against were men, rather than women. Perhaps realizing that at the time men seemed to inherently have greater rights than women, unveiling the ways men suffer when women are treated unequally was the most successful approach.  In fact, the Frontiero case was the only of six Supreme Court cases involving a female plaintiff (though the beneficiary was her husband).  This underscores Ginsburg’s emphasis toward gender equality for all (men and women). According to Brenda Feigen, a Los Angeles lawyer who worked with Ginsburg on the Women’s Rights Project, “She had a flair for knowing what kind of nonlegal but relevant social and historical facts needed to be put into a brief to get the justices to understand” (Ward).  Learning more about her contributions prior to her position as Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court has caused an even greater admiration for my heroine.  On her current position, Ginsburg says, “It’s great for this institution and for the country that women are now one-third of the highest court in the land.  It means that we are really here.  We are no longer one – or two-at-a time curiosities” (Ward).

Source Citation: Ward, Stephanie Francis. “Family Ties: The Private and Public Lives of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” ABA Journal (2010).

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