You may have seen the t-shirts, the posters, the hashtags or even trailers for the full length movie starring Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a reputation as a pop icon, and her name is known in homes all across the nation.
Not many Supreme Court Justices enjoy such notoriety, so why her? She is not the first female Supreme Court Justice – that title belongs to Sandra Day O’Connor, while Sonia Sotomayor is the first female Latinx Supreme Court Justice.
So why is it RBG that we are seeing on the big screen?
As a litigator for the American Civil Liberties Union, she was deeply connected to the women’s rights movement long before she became a justice. She spearheaded a new legal precedent of overturning laws that discriminated between men and women.
You would be shocked to read some of the laws that existed as late as the 1970s – laws that reasoned that women were bad at math, too fragile for the courtroom, too tied to their roles as wives and mothers to fulfill other roles in society.
The Moritz v. IRS case addressed a single man who claimed a deduction on his taxes for the care of his elderly mother.
The government only allowed these deductions to a woman, or to a man who had been widowed or divorced. The amount of money was minimal, but the law blatantly discriminated between men and women, assuming that no single unmarried man would care for an elderly parent.
While tax deductions may not seem like an incredibly pressing issue for the U.S. government, RBG had other cases in mind that had much more prevalent consequences – cases like Hoyt v. Florida.
In 1961, Gwendolyn Hoyt killed her husband in an act of passion and was sentenced to 30 years of hard labor in prison by an all-male jury. Hoyt challenged the Florida statute that only allowed women on juries if they volunteered – they were not drafted, and therefore, most juries did not have any women.
The state of Florida defended this statute by claiming that it protected most women from the “from the filth, obscenity, and obnoxious atmosphere of the courtroom.” In other words, a courtroom was far too difficult for women, but 30 years of intense prison labor was a fitting sentence for Gwendolyn Hoyt.
Hoyt was not unique. In Reed v. Reed, the American Civil Liberties Union challenged an Idaho law that stated that in determining the administrator of an estate, men would be preferred to women.
Sally and Cecil Reed were a married couple who adopted a son. Cecil abandoned his family when their son, Skip, was only 3 years old. When Skip was a teenager, Cecil was awarded partial custody. Cecil took out a life insurance policy on Skip, and a few months later, Skip was found dead in the basement with his father’s shotgun during one of Cecil’s visits. The court ruled his death a suicide and declared Cecil the administrator of his son’s estate.
These were the kinds of cases that RBG had in mind when she fought laws that discriminated on the basis of sex. For her, equality under law was not just an ideal – it was a truth that needed to be reflected in all reaches of government.
Although pop culture may depict her as passionate and idealistic, she has a quiet, calm demeanor and a sharp intellect.
Overturning legal precedent is more akin to digging your way through a mountain than dynamiting your way through.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a hero to so many women because she is an example of what real change looks like – idealistic and forward thinking, but diligent and compassionate, too.
Opinion from Kaleigh Kuhns, Vanguard Reporter