Women’s Rights and Gender Equality: My Own Words
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is known today as a pop culture icon and a liberal heavyweight on the Supreme Court. Yet her role in society today was shaped by her past as a women’s rights advocate and one of the few women in the legal profession. My Own Words is a collection of writings and speeches by Justice Ginsburg that outlines life from her working-class roots in New York City to her 2015-2016 term on the Supreme Court. Despite the many insights Ginsberg lends into the workings of the Supreme Court, the book’s main intention is to focus on women’s rights and sex discrimination. My Own Words is thus more than a collection of speeches, cases and bench announcements; Ginsburg and her biographers frame it as a story of the struggles that women have faced in the past and may face in the future.
Ginsberg is perhaps one of the most qualified individuals in the United States to write a book on sex discrimination and the law. She was one of only twelve women enrolled at Columbia Law School in 1958. Undeterred, Ginsburg then went on to teach at Columbia Law and serve as the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project. At Columbia Law School, the book notes, Ginsburg was the “first tenured woman law professor in [Columbia Law’s] 114-year history.” Throughout her career in academia, Ginsburg focused on women’s rights and gender equality. In 1974, she published Sex-Based Discrimination: Text, Cases and Materials, the first casebook in the United States to focus on sex discrimination and law. In 1993, after 35 years in the legal field, Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton.
In the book, Justice Ginsburg recounts the time she spent working with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice appointed to the Supreme Court. Lawyers would consistently confuse the two women when answering questions. Although there are now two other women serving on the Supreme Court—Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan, appointed by President Obama in 2009 and 2010, respectively—Ginsburg reminds us that there is always progress to be made. Although many tout women’s increased participation in law and politics, the perception is not the reality. It is true that more women than ever before are attending law school and women make up around half of all law school students— significantly more than the eleven women with whom Justice Ginsburg attended school. However, women in the law profession continue to be the minority, with women constituting only 36 percent of all lawyers in the workforce and 24 percent of all lawyers in Fortune 500 companies, according to the American Bar Association. Women have made partner in only 21.5 percent of American law firms, and only 27.1 percent of US judgeships are held by women.
This guise of progress is nowhere better unmasked than in the field of current American politics. The results of the 2016 presidential election, for example, were framed by many as a failure for women in law and politics. CNN’s interactive electoral map, still available on their website, projected that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, nominee for the Democratic Party, would easily win the election with 268 electoral votes compared to 204 projected votes for Republican nominee Donald Trump. When Trump defeated Clinton with 306 electoral votes to her 232, voters around the country were shocked. Then, on November 14, 2016, Newsweek ran an article titled, “The Presidential Election Was a Referendum on Gender and Women Lost.” Casting Trump as the anti-woman candidate, due to controversial remarks about women that emerged during the campaign, the article outlines how Clinton’s loss came to represent, for many women, a loss for all womankind and blow to women’s issues. The article noted how Clinton’s defeat may “deter other women […] from getting into politics.”
Yet women have responded to Trump’s election with political action. Women’s rights advocates have mobilized against him as a collective force, taking part in events such as the Women’s March on Washington, which protested Trump’s anti-woman comments and policy proposals. And, more than ever before, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a symbol of female resistance, even seen wearing her infamous “dissent collar” in the days following the presidential election.
Although My Own Words was published in October 2016, well before the results of the presidential election were known, Justice Ginsburg placed a focus on women’s rights that speaks to a need for addressing the legal and societal barriers that women still face in all aspects of life. In the penultimate chapter of her book, titled “The Role of Dissenting Opinions,” Ginsburg addresses the major issues that hinder gender equality today, once again reminding us that our work in advocating for women’s rights is not yet done. Here, Ginsberg focuses on one of her more famous dissents, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. After realizing that she was paid less than her male coworkers, Lilly Ledbetter, an employee at Goodyear, sued her employer for sex discrimination; because it took her two decades to come to this realization, however, the Court dismissed her case. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg strongly urged Congress “to take action” in fixing wage discrimination. Ginsburg penned her dissent in May 2007. Two years later, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
In another case, the Court upheld an abortion act for failing to “contain an exception allowing a doctor to perform [a specific type of] procedure” if a woman’s health was in danger. Justices Thomas and Scalia stated in concurring opinions that “Roe v. Wade and its progeny should be explicitly overruled.” Justice Ginsburg, who is particularly interested in abortion rights, “strongly dissented” in her bench announcement. Despite the ruling of Roe v. Wade, a 1973 Supreme Court case that effectively legalized abortion, women still have trouble accessing abortion services in many states. Very few abortion clinics remain in the Southern states, for example, making an abortion extremely difficult to obtain for the many women who cannot afford to travel out of state. In response to recent legislative efforts to close abortion clinics, Planned Parenthood has created a map of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi that projects how many clinics will remain in each of these states. In Texas, only ten clinics will remain. Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Alabama will each have only one clinic left. Mississippi, a state with 603,000 “women of reproductive age,” is projected to have no abortion clinics at all. In 2015, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that made it “more difficult for women to obtain abortions.” CNN reported that this ruling, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, could make “clinic-shutdown laws” less prevalent. Ginsburg was particularly enthusiastic about the decision. Though Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for the Court, Justice Ginsburg felt compelled to write a concurring opinion that reiterated the reasoning behind the decision. This commitment to women’s rights and to the Court is at the core of My Own Words.
Though women’s rights seem to be regressing in today’s political climate, with men openly objectifying women at the highest levels of government, Ginsburg’s commitment to and passion for change reminds us that some progress in women’s rights and gender equality can always be achieved. Throughout her prolific career, Ginsberg has seen an increased number of women in the law field, seen the first female nominee of a major party run for president, and seen abortion rights legalized and protected. Perhaps more than any other woman in modern times, Justice Ginsburg has made significant progress for women’s rights through her work: with the ACLU, as a professor, as a judge, and now, as a justice. Even though My Own Words is largely composed of case briefs, opinions, and dissents, it is a book worth reading for anyone interested in the ways that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has interpreted and shaped the gender-driven society in which we live today.