A Tribute to RBG: Lessons From the One Who Has Kept the Dream of Gender Equality Alive

“Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Champion Of Gender Equality, Dies At 87” (Totenberg, 2020), “Mourning the Death of Feminist Icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg” (Klasing, 2020). The news came like a bolt from the blue. I did not see it coming. At all. I had so much faith in her capacity to beat cancer recurrences, to overcome all sorts of hurdles life had put on her way that I realized that I had almost pictured her as immortal. However, while hundreds of thousands of people mourned her loss on September 18th, she is and will remain eternal for me, as the biggest role model I ever had. 

The power of role models, especially female figures, to inspire change and to speed up gender equality has been one of my main areas of interest since I partially translated the book Do It Like a Woman written by the activist Caroline Criado-Perez, in the context of my translation thesis. Throughout the chapters, she narrates the stories of women who defy stereotypes, following their dreams, pursuing their vocations, challenging rules in male-dominated environments. They prove the world that women can drive military airplanes, be graffiti artists or sport journalists. 

Learning more about the work of Justice RBG about two years ago, I realized that all those incredible and empowering features that I have retained from the women depicted in the book could unquestionably be found in one person. From the work she accomplished to put an end to gender discrepancies, to her unique traits of character that made her a leader and a game changer, RBG has been a considerable esteemed driving force in my professional and personal development. 

RBG, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993 as the second woman on the Supreme Court, has unanimously been a trailblazer for gender equality, through her fierce and constant legal and also symbolic battle against gender discriminations, leading many to refer to her as a “revered feminist icon” (Marshall Project Staff, 2020). 

She first joined the American Civil Liberties Union as co-director in 1972 where she founded the Women’s Rights Project, motivated by her audacious idea for the times she lived in to completely reverse the legal status quo on gender equality instead of just “helping a specific woman” (para. 8, Romero, 2020) as some lawyers would do. About one year later, she exposed her first oral argument before the Supreme Court in Frontiero v. Richardson. She won the case through her remarkable rhetoric, which became famous for her quote of Sarah Grimkè, nineteenth-century female advocate of equal rights for men and women: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” (para. 11, Romero, 2020) In total, she won five of the six cases she pleaded before the Supreme Court, taking on a great deal of cases on behalf of male plaintiffs to make it clear that gender-based discriminations do not only affect women but also men. In 1975, for example, she argued in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld that the Social Security Act of 1935 “unfairly discriminated on the basis of sex” (para. 2, facts of the case, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld) after the widow Wiesenfeld has been refused to receive his deceased wife’s survivor benefits, who, as a teacher, had made a higher salary than him. After her nomination to the Supreme Court, she continued to fiercely advocate for her “constitutional agenda for equality and justice” (para.3, Klasing, 2020). One of her most famous successful cases include United States v. Virginia where she broadened the protection of the 14th Amendment’s equal rights clause to the women aspiring to be cadets at the Virginia Military Institute. In 2006, based on the argument of equal pay for equal work, she declared: “The court does not comprehend…the insidious way that women can be victims to discrimination” (para. 23, Romero, 2020). Her continuous efforts to end gender-based pay discriminations led Barack Obama to adopt the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009. In 2007, she wrote in dissent in Gonzales v. Carhart, where she clearly positioned herself against the restrictions on abortion, which were “part of the forever effort and set of laws restricting women” (para. 4, Melling, 2020). In 2015, she once more bet the odds on the constitutionality of gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, where she responded to the lawyer Bursch, the latter assuming that marriage was only meant for procreation: “Suppose a couple, 70-year-old couple, comes in and they want to get married?” (para. 8, Roberts, 2015)

While she became this famous legal figure for equality and justice through her well-known “I dissent”, she has also become an amazingly powerful role model for “everyone who struggles to imagine themselves as having a powerful voice for change” (first paragraph, Klasing, 2020). And more particularly, she has clearly set the tone for any woman aspiring to fulfill her dreams, freeing herself from all the symbolic, legal and structural limits society has forcibly and wrongly placed on her. Through her attitude, actions, charisma and words, she taught not only American women but all women that they can thrive and make change happen even in a society rotted by unjust power relations. Here are the main traits of her character I consider empowering for every woman to success in their personal and professional life, cutting through any kind of unfairness they may be facing and taking their power back.  

  1. Bravery. RBG defied all rules throughout her life, starting from the moment she entered as a young mother the Harvard Law School as part of the small group of nine women admitted. In an interview given to CNN in 2018, she declared in reference to her life after graduation: “I had three strikes: I was a woman, I was Jewish, and I had a four-year-old child.” (2018, RBG, CNN Interview) Indeed, she faced great difficulties to find a job as a young female lawyer. She finally found a teaching position where she was informed “that she would be paid less than her male colleagues because she had a husband who earned a good income” (para. 5, Romero, 2020). During that time, she hid the pregnancy of her son, fearing demotion. 
  2. Determination and hard work. RBG was determined to reverse the trend on gender equality. And for that, she spent hours at her desk, writing detailed and carefully reviewed opinions, motivated by her willingness to paint a “picture with words” (para. 6, Gallo, 2020). She brought her communication skills to their zenith by long hours and restless efforts to make her point clear and understandable by anyone and above all to convince the court. 
  3. Resilience. RBG was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009. Despite cancer recurrences, she fought against them and she continued to assume her functions, fully and wholeheartedly. While she died from complications of cancer last September, she taught both women and men that resilience is the key to find joy and happiness in everyday life by following your passion and fighting for the cause that is meaningful to you. 
  4. Independence. It all starts with the famous life advice she had received from her mother. In the interview given to CNN, RBG recalled her mother’s words: “Be independent, be a lady, don’t give way to emotions that will [take] your energy. It won’t take you to any place, including anger and envy.” (2018, RBG, CNN Interview) She told her to always fend for herself and to not imprison herself into any sort of dependence on a man.
  5. A healthy relationship with a supportive partner. It is a kind of “all or nothing” for me. And she found her “all”. She described Martin Ginsburg, who she got married with after graduation, as the first man who “cared that I had a brain” (para. 9, Carlson, 2020) He supported her growth and she was present for him too. When Marty suffered from cancer while still at university, Ruth did the work for him and wrote his papers. It went both ways, and that makes it the perfect example of how a healthy relationship should be. It sets a space where a woman can blossom and fulfill her potential, without being restricted in any way. 

In conclusion, RBG can clearly be considered as “the architect of a legal strategy to eradicate gender discrimination in the United States” (para. 2, Romero, 2020). She was a truth teller, she used her own talent for the benefit of the whole. Through her highly respected work, she also showed women that no dream is crazy enough to be achieved. It just needs devotion and faith. 


References

Buck, S. (2018). The On the Basis of Sex Story Wasn’t the Only Time Ruth Bader Ginsburg Used Cases About Men to Argue for Women’s Equality. The Times. Retrieved from https://time.com/5481422/rbg-movie-male-plaintiff-history/

Carlson, M. (2020). Ruth Bader Ginsburg Has Died. She Leaves Behind a Vital Legacy for Women — and Men. The Times. Retrieved from https://time.com/5660188/ruth-bader-ginsburg-dies/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=editorial&utm_term=history_remembrance&linkId=100000875&fbclid=IwAR3HB00xfGy68J51xq0LoXSn4j3KtsV4eJWlPLB7j_ZW-2gRxFm6oLp9E6Q

D. Romero, A. (2020). In Memory of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020). Retrieved 31 October 2020, from https://www.aclu.org/news/civil-liberties/in-memory-of-justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-1933-2020/

Gallo, C. (2020). Ruth Bader Ginsburg Sharpened Her Writing Skills To Persuade People Who Are Hard To Convince. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2020/09/20/ruth-bader-ginsburg-sharpened-her-writing-skills-to-persuade-people-who-are-hard-to-convince/?utm_source=FBPAGE&utm_medium=social&utm_content=3812982985&utm_campaign=sprinklrForbesMainFB#39b56d3559b0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuB4vr6Elok&t=105s. (2018). Ruth Bader Ginsburg: My 

       life on the Supreme Court [Video]. Youtube.

Klasing, A. (2020). Mourning the Death of Feminist Icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Retrieved 31 October 2020, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/09/18/mourning-death-feminist-icon-justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg?fbclid=IwAR18h70kE6oPF-X2del2AxqLp5-v__o96yw8qD14KdN1cyY_6qjN7tHhkNM

Melling, L. (2020). ACLU News & Commentary – For Justice Ginsburg, Abortion Was About Equality. Retrieved 31 October 2020, from https://www.aclu.org/news/reproductive-freedom/for-justice-ginsburg-abortion-was-about-equality/

RBG’s Mixed Record on Race and Criminal Justice. (2020). Retrieved 31 October 2020, from https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/09/23/rbg-s-mixed-record-on-race-and-criminal-justice

Roberts, D. (2015). Ruth Bader Ginsburg eviscerates same-sex marriage opponents in court. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/apr/28/ruth-bader-ginsburg-gay-marriage-arguments-supreme-court

Totenber, N. (2020). Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Champion Of Gender Equality, Dies At 87. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/09/18/100306972/justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-champion-of-gender-equality-dies-at-87?utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_medium=social&fbclid=IwAR1zZNKrRUW14VS7DMxyxfrP1czb-YIJrNJlUIZGBI6RnvkLT1D8J-Z2KTo&t=1600519904446

Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved October 31, 2020, from https://www.oyez.org/cases/1974/73-1892

Zimet, A. (2020). For RBG: Today We Grieve, Tomorrow We Fight. Retrieved 31 

October 2020, from https://www.commondreams.org/further/2020/09/18/rbg-today-we-grieve-tomorrow-we-fight (picture)


About the author:

Clémentine Dupont has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in multidisciplinary translation in French, English and Spanish. After her internship at the French Translation Service of the United Nations where she discovered her passion for human rights and international relations and politics, she went on studying a Specialization Master in Human Rights in Brussels, Belgium. She then decided to travel to Costa Rica and study at the United Nations mandated University for Peace where she pursued a Master in International Peace Studies. Throughout her academic and professional experience, she gave a special attention to gender, women’s rights and migration, leading her to participate to the G20 Interfaith Fellows and Youth Forum, co-organized by KAICIID & UNAoC, where she contributed to formulating policy recommendations on migration. She is actually volunteering for the Brussels-based organization The Urban Woman as a blogger and interning at Forum ZFD, the German Forum Civil Peace Service.

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