Twenty-twenty is not even over, with a seismic election in a mere 45 days, and yet another socio-economic-political earthquake – especially for women – has erupted with the passing of the irreplaceable icon of American history, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) last night.
RBG’s death provides further proof that 2020 has become the year of the woman, coincident with the centennial of women’s right to vote (the 19th Amendment), and the disproportionate socio-economic impact of the pandemic-economic crisis on women (which many dubbed it a “She-Cession”).
Add the first woman of color on a presidential ticket, that women are the largest single voting bloc this election year and are running for office in record numbers (including in the presidential primaries), and the image becomes even more clear. Not to mention the women quietly breaking glass ceilings in the private sector, including the naming of the first woman to run a major bank, with Citigroup’s Jane Fraser as its next CEO.
Even women whose politics were opposed to hers owe their abilities to be heard and paid well to Ruth Bader Ginsburg
American women of all generations, regardless of their politics, benefited from Justice Ginsburg’s brilliance and fierce tenacity as she became a Davida confronting the Goliaths of systemic, legal-economic inequality in the United States over her 60+ year legal career. Women were not even allowed to wear pants in the office when she started law school in 1956, nor play sports in school, and 70% worked in secretarial roles.
Thousands, maybe millions of smart, talented, determined women lawyers – from Sherilynn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to former Watergate Prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks (who I just interviewed on my podcast), to Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner (EEOC) Charlotte Burrows – owe their careers and livelihoods to Justice Ginsburg. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court and a conservative Republican nominated by President Ronald Reagan, does as well.
RBG’s secret weapon
What not enough people are talking about today as the country mourns Justice Ginsburg, though, is her real secret weapon: the force of her intelligence and ability to articulate the key points in complex, intricate legal arguments, in ways that show the ground-level impact of legal rulings on real people’s lives. Even when she did not persuade her court colleagues, she sometimes persuaded politicians and the public, inspiring ground-breaking legislative and civic action.
For example, in United States v. Virginia, about women not being allowed into the all-male Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Justice Ginsburg persuaded almost all her colleagues that the Institute’s all-male policy was discriminatory. (Her good friend Justice Scalia still was unpersuaded.) This landmark ruling opened the doors of the prestigious Academy to women, enabling women to achieve broader success in the U.S. military.
In her famous dissent of the Lilly Ledbetter case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., for example – which she took the rare step of reading aloud to the Court to get her points across – she said in part, “In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.” She did not win the Supreme Court over, but did inspire the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first legislation signed into law by President Obama, overturning the Supreme Court ruling.
When she vehemently dissented against her colleagues’ ruling in Shelby v Holder, a 2013 ruling that eliminated a primary voting rights protection of the landmark Voting Rights Act, Justice Ginsburg made her point crystal clear. “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.
So, take note for your own career journey…
As we celebrate this tiny giant of U.S. history, and recognize the huge crater her passing left in our world and our hearts, we would be wise to also learn from her primary skill of success. That is, her extraordinary ability to communicate her reasoning – to make her case – using analogies and specific, easy to comprehend language, showing the impact of the issue on our real lives, on kitchen table and daily issues and on our real-workplace experiences.
Thank you, Justice Ginsburg, for using your gifts and energy to empower each of us, especially women, and make the world a better, fairer place, where each of us can seek to achieve our potential, as you so eminently did.