Justice Ginsburg was a champion for gender equity. Her legacy lives in the laws she changed and with all the women in professional positions; men who are treated the same as women when they apply for benefits for their family; and families who are better off financially because the female in their household earns a more fair wage. As we mourn her passing, we know that true equity still eludes too many. Even as women have gained many legal rights, we are still paid less than men, bear a disproportionate burden of childcare responsibilities and are vastly underrepresented in elected office and executive suites. Within these inequities, it is also clear that women of color tend to be more burdened by these realities. This battle for true equity is the one we all must continue to fight. Even as we lose an icon at a time when we need passionate and intelligent leadership more than ever, we do not lose the many lessons she has left behind.
She understood who she was and who she was not: She used her voice to become a lawyer and to win landmark cases by conducting diligent research and arguing them in new ways. She left the equally important work of protesting and championing issues in louder ways to others who could be more effective in that realm.
She was not afraid to dissent: These dissents made her an icon because they were well argued. She did not accept the majority opinion if she disagreed – instead she respectfully but forcefully dissented, at times changing opinions with her words.
Her view of equity was consistent, making her stance stronger: She did not believe gender equity to be a women’s issue, but one that was just as important to men.
She understood that perseverance is essential: She pushed through what must have been physical and mental exhaustion time and time again in her personal and professional life. She helped her husband through law school when he was sick, while also taking her own classes and caring for a baby. When she felt like justice had not been done in a fair pay case in front of the Supreme Court, she wrote the famous dissent that influenced the passage of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act by Congress.
There are many stories that highlight Justice Ginsburg’s professional success, but the story that has stuck with me is from her personal life. When her son was young, he regularly got into trouble at school. The principal would call his mother whenever this happened, interrupting her workday, and expecting an immediate response. She eventually asked the principal to alternate calls between her and her husband- “the boy has two parents.” The school promptly stopped calling because they did not want to interrupt a man at work. This seems like a small thing, but as a mother of two young children, I know that I always get the call - never my husband – to spite the fact that we are both at work all day. Societal norms are harder to change than laws. But sometimes just calling out an inequity, however small, is a place to start.
This story also highlights one of the basic tenants of what Justice Ginsburg fought for her entire life – fairness. It seems simple - maybe too simple when addressing the complex issues facing us today. We know so much has been unfair for too many for too long- women, people of color, indigenous people, those who identify as LGBTQ, and the list goes on. Fairness is a concept embedded in most social justice battles – the fight for equal pay is an issue of basic fairness; the fight for high quality education for all children is an issue of basic fairness; the fight for police to treat all they encounter equally is a issue of basic fairness; the fight for voting rights for all who are eligible is an issue of basic fairness; and the right to affordable high-quality healthcare is an issue of basic fairness. The list can go on and on. The details of how to achieve fairness is where viewpoints diverge, even amongst those with the same values and goals. Justice Ginsburg certainly understood this. Yet, she continued to listen and to lead without a break in resolve. The ability to listen and remind ourselves of common goals is important as we struggle with difficult issues.
As we move forward facing the many challenges resulting from the inequities that have persisted for too long, we all have an obligation to, like Justice Ginsburg, understand our own strengths and do what we can to promote equity in our communities and beyond. Her legacy is already living on in the thousands of people from all backgrounds who are dedicated to promoting equity; in those using their voice to call out injustice; and in all those helping one another in the midst of the pandemic. Few of us have the power of the Supreme Court bench like Justice Ginsburg, but we can all ensure a more fair, equitable and just future.
This issue of Equity Matters was written by Rebecca Gallo, Senior Program Officer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org