Typically, the people who end up having the most impact in this world are those that see their lives through pragmatic lenses. Ruth Bader Ginsburg never thought of herself as exceptional. She was a New York woman who was unapologetically her own person, and it was because of this that her approach to fighting injustice was deliberate and unwavering.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Wife, Mother, Lawyer, and Supreme Court Justice
Ruth Bader Ginsburg grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Her mother battled cancer throughout Ginsburg’s high school years and passed away the day before she graduated. Ginsburg was the highest-ranking female in her graduating class at Cornell and was one of only nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law School. In 1993, Ginsburg became only the second woman appointed to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
I always felt like I could relate to her outsider status. I am a Black woman who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx. I went to a boarding school where I was one of seven Black students in a class of 140. In law school at UC Berkeley, it was more of the same — I was one of nine in a class of 270. Even in the corporate environment, I am often the only Black woman who has a seat at the table. Unfortunately, decades later, it is more of the same. The exclusive nature of opportunity is still a virus that permeates through every sector of American life and is why the fight for equality and equity is never-ending.
Being an outsider has always made it more difficult to break through, but also easier to notice the obstacles that those who come from non-traditional backgrounds face. Justice Ginsburg did not let that deter her as she continued her crusade to ensure that anyone, despite their race, gender, or belief, was equal under the eyes of the law.
Ginsburg not only inspired my career in law, but also inspired millions of other women and those from other disenfranchised groups, to strive for both giant career aspirations and fulfilling personal lives. She made it okay to be a wife, mom, and have an incredible career because she did it all.
Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007) and Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (2009)
I was perhaps most inspired by Ginsberg in 2007 when she broke with tradition by reading her dissent aloud as a way to draw attention to the gender pay gap issue. I will never forget the case — Ledbetter v. Goodyear.
Lilly Ledbetter, a retired Goodyear employee, filed a lawsuit against the company for gender discrimination after discovering her salary was much lower than those of her male counterparts during her 19-year career with the company. However, in a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court dismissed Ledbetter’s claim, ruling that according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she only had 180 days after an instance of discrimination to take her employer to court.
In her dissent, Ginsburg pointed out that Ledbetter couldn’t have brought her claim any earlier because she wasn’t aware of the years of discrimination she endured until years after the fact. Ginsburg reasoned that racial and gender disparities often crop up and reveal themselves slowly. As a Black woman, I know this to be true for many reasons.
Ginsburg didn’t stop with her dissent. Instead, she persisted, urging Congress to pass legislation that would overturn the court’s decision. One of the first bills signed into law by President Barack Obama was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which did precisely that.
Blazing Trails in an Egoless Way
Ginsburg blazed trails in an egoless way, inspiring people to fight for the things they care about in a way that leads others to join them. Her rooted principles help bring consistency in an inconsistent world. She promoted justice and equality by anchoring all of her opinions (even her dissents) to the 14th amendment right that, “No State Shall Deny to Any Person the Equal Protection of the laws.”
And, most importantly, she knew that true change takes devoted action and incremental change over longer periods of time. Her example offers the greatest lesson to those that look to pick up her mantle and continue the fight against injustice: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Goodbye Justice Ginsburg, thank you for the paths you paved and your tireless fight for justice.