In her 87 and a half years, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a decisive influence on the law, feminism and, late in her life, pop culture. She has also been instrumental in shaping everyday life in America by helping expand the types of families people start and the types of jobs they can take. Your legacy is, in a sense, the life that countless Americans can live today.
Ginsburg gained celebrity status as a Supreme Court Justice, and during her tenure she cast votes to support Americans’ ability to have an abortion and marry someone of the same sex. However, her legal legacy can be traced back to her work as a trial attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s, when she and others won a series of groundbreaking gender discrimination cases that challenged laws that affect everyday parts of the world American life and seem medieval today.
These laws implied a narrow view of gender roles within the family. “At the time when RBG argued, laws were common that provided for explicit gender differences. Widows get that; Widower not. Women get that; Husbands don’t, ”Kathryn Stanchi, a law professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, wrote to me in an email.
Among other things, Ginsburg successfully stood up in court for a father who, after the death of his wife, was denied survivor’s social security benefits because the law stipulated that widows were entitled to benefits, but widowers were not; a woman in the Air Force whose husband was denied spousal allowance to which military women were automatically entitled; and an unmarried man who was denied a tax deduction for hiring a carer for his elderly mother because that deduction was reserved for women, divorced men, and men whose wives were incapacitated or deceased. The laws in question did not take people into account in these circumstances; now, because of Ginsburg, they are doing it.
However, their litigation did not involve a series of isolated injustices: Ginsburg’s key argument was that “equal protection” under the law, as promised in the Fourteenth Amendment, covered gender discrimination. One unconventional but clever strategy she used was to focus on how such discrimination harmed men. “Instead of asking the court to examine inequalities affecting women, who are very unlikely to be sympathetic to nine men, she asked them to look into inequalities affecting men because it felt it was more likely that they would recognize these as problematic, ”Michele Dauber, a law professor at Stanford University, told me.
This attention to the treatment of men by the law was not only strategic, but also part of Ginsburg’s larger legal project to abolish the norms that directed women into care and men into work. “The breadwinner-housewife model is deeply embedded in the fabric of American society and law,” said Joan C. Williams, professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. One of Ginsburg’s key contributions to American feminism, Williams told me, was the realization that “these had to be talked about as a set of consistent stereotypes and attacked them both at the same time.”
Ginsburg’s approach helped transform the way women could gain a foothold in the world. Before the mid-1970s, they were often denied access to their own credit cards “on the assumption that their husband controls the family’s financial assets,” said Patricia Seith, a researcher specializing in congressional law history. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 prohibited such discrimination, including mortgages. “Ginsburg paved the way for laws like ECOA,” said Seith.
The legal precedents that Ginsburg helped establish in the 1970s shaped, in a way, the way households are set up today. For example, female breadwinners are much more common today than they were a few decades ago. “She is not responsible for making every woman choose a job individually, but she created the conditions under which, if you choose, you will have full access to the benefits of your employment,” says Melissa Murray, to NYU law professor.
The accumulation of new safeguards won by Ginsburg and others has enabled many Americans to imagine versions of family life beyond the breadwinner-housewife binary family. Her legacy “is not just about social security or tax exemptions, although these are huge in their own way,” said Stanchi, the UNLV professor. “It’s the ability to shape your gender the way you want it, whether it’s women who work outside the home,… men stay home and take care of children, men who love other men, women who love other women. “
Of course, the United States has achieved little that resembles gender equality. Men still earn more than twice as often as women among heterosexual couples, and women spend on average over an hour more than men daily on care and housework. The American family “looks a lot less different right now than we tried,” Williams said, referring to the work they and others have done. “But it looks a lot different from what traditionalists would like.”
In this sense, Ginsburg’s legacy is far-reaching. When I asked Dauber, the Stanford professor, about the specific, concrete characteristics of daily life that are now changing with Ginsburg, she said: “It is the right to have certain jobs. It is the right to be a lawyer, the right to be a doctor. It is the right to attend elite colleges or any college. It is the right to participate in sports. It’s all that came after the idea that it was inappropriate to discriminate based on gender … It’s not something that’s different – it’s everything that’s different. “