The Icon of Justice and Female Empowerment

by Greg Langley

Fit for discussion: what to know about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the icon of female empowerment

Who is Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

“Notoriety” came late to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, although she has always been subversive and radical. For the first decade of her quarter century on the Supreme Court of the United States, Justice Ginsburg was an obscure figure, an impression reinforced by her polite, petite, glove-wearing appearance.

But this hid a steely personality fashioned during heated women’s rights battles in the 1970s. From 2007 onwards, when her all-male colleagues began issuing opinions that seemed to move women’s rights backward, Ginsburg took to issuing angry, but painstakingly-argued and compelling dissents. This captured the imagination of a younger generation of women and gave birth after 2010 to Ginsburg as a badass gangsta internet meme: the “Notorious R.B.G.”

Today, as the 85-year-old Justice was described in RBG, a documentary on her life, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen as a “hero, icon, dissenter” who spent a lifetime fighting male power and misogyny with dignity and grace.

When did she first come to prominence?

Ginsburg came into prominence at a time when the legal profession did not readily accept women. She was one of only nine women in a Harvard Law class of 500 men in 1956. Although she later graduated from Columbia top of her class, she says, “not a law firm in New York would employ me.”

She first made her name in 1972 when she challenged the denial of a dependent-care deduction allowed to women but denied to a single man who cared for his ailing mother. It was gender bias, she prevailed and in the process cast doubt of unconstitutionality over hundreds of Federal statutes that discriminated on the basis of sex.

Why is she an icon of female empowerment?

Throughout the 1970s, she then, together with the American Civil Liberties Union, scored five victories in six Supreme Court appeals that were rooted in assumptions that men had jobs and women stayed home. At the time, women were not allowed to, for example, own a credit card, and in many states, could be fired for pregnancy. Ginsburg’s victories slowly and systematically helped eradicate gender discrimination to reshaped gender law in the United States and change the world for American women.

In her own words.

In the RBG documentary, Ginsburg is shown as a planking, civil-rights-defending Supreme Court Justice. In the film, she plainly states, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

Of her early victories, she recalls that, “I saw myself as a kind of kindergarten teacher in those days because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.”

The documentary RBG was released in the United States late last year. She is also the subject of a forthcoming film, On the Basis of Sex, featuring Felicity Jones from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as the young Ginsburg.

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