She was born during the Great Depression and died on Sept. 18, in what may be remembered as one of the most tumultuous years in American history. Despite these bookends, Ruth Bader Ginsburg described her life as lucky, saying she “was born under a very bright star.”
Nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg was the second woman and the first Jewish woman to serve as a justice. Originally, she was viewed as a moderate consensus builder. As the court shifted to the right, Ginsburg became known for her “notorious” dissents, which she would often read from the bench to underscore her points. Her death from metastatic cancer complications leaves behind a vacancy on the bench as well as a significant legacy on issues like gender equality, women’s health, and LGBTQ rights.
Penn Today reached out to five experts from the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and the School of Arts & Sciences to reflect on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy and her impact on feminism, legal history, and equal rights.
Dawn Teele, associate professor of political science in the School of Arts & Sciences and author of “Forging the Franchise: The Political Origins of the Women’s Vote” (2018)
Speaking at Georgetown Law School in 2015, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recounted that she is sometimes asked when there will be “enough” women on the United States Supreme Court. Her answer was, “When there are nine.” We can see, just in that deft riposte, why Ginsburg became such a feminist icon by the end of her long and distinguished career. “When there are nine” made the exasperating oversights implicit in the question explicit, gently but firmly skewering the absurdity and utter predictability of dogged resistance to any and every advance by women upon male-dominated institutions.
The Supreme Court was staffed by nine men for 112 years after 1869, when the modern nine-justice court was established. No one thought to ask whether nine men were enough, or too many, until 1981, when Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman on the court. Ginsburg’s appointment in 1993 brought the total number of women on the court to two, and suddenly the country was concerned to know when women would be satisfied. How much representation is enough? How many is too many? As a lawyer, legal scholar, appeals court judge, and Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg fundamentally altered the status of women in the United States, allowing women to study and work where they had once been barred, giving women more control over their bodies and in their families. But after Ginsburg’s death last week, the number of women on the court returned to two, right where it was when she was appointed. Is that enough?
Stephen B. Burbank, David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice in the Law School and co-author of “Rights and Retrenchment: The Counterrevolution Against Federal Litigation” (2017)
I fear that one of the costs of our toxic political environment may be that more attention is given to how the vacancy created by Justice Ginsburg’s death is filled, and by whom, than to her extraordinary accomplishments as a lawyer, scholar, and judge. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was critically important to the success of the legal campaign to secure for women the same rights as men.
Brilliant, incisive, and strategically adept, as a lawyer she won numerous court victories for equal treatment, and as a justice she was a powerful voice for the protection of that which she helped to secure. Petite in stature and not given to chit chat, she was a person of extraordinary energy and courage. For many young men of my generation, she was no less an inspiration than she was to young women—albeit for different reasons. For she helped open our minds. For that I will personally be forever grateful, and I mourn her passing.
Rangita de Silva de Alwis, associate dean for international affairs in the Law School and editor of “Making Laws, Breaking Silence: Case Studies from the Field” (2018)
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew the dangers of a parochial approach to the law. When necessary, she was not afraid to rely on international and comparative law, both as a justice and as a lawyer, to make a case for equality under the law. She drew upon comparative law for her first brief filed in the Supreme Court, Reed v. Reed, in 1970—the first case to prohibit sex-based classification. For the brief, she extensively referenced reports to the U.N. on the legal status of women in Sweden as well as the U.N. Charter. In Grutter v. Bollinger, which challenged the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action program, she compared the program to the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women’ Temporary Special Measures in Article 4.
Nancy Hirschmann, Stanley I. Sheerr Term Professor in the Social Sciences and professor of political science and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies in the School of Arts & Sciences and author of “Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory” (2008)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg insisted that women are entitled to the same rights as men and was pilloried as a “radical” because of that. Of all her written opinions, her dissent in Gonzales v. Carhart, concerning a federal act that banned a specific abortion procedure that is performed in the second trimester—and infrequently—particularly shows how un-radical gender equality is; and indeed how sensible it is, except to the most misogynist.
Justice Ginsburg’s blistering dissent noted willful misrepresentation of facts by both Congress and the Supreme Court, including the denial of testimony by representatives of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other experts about the greater safety and medical necessity of the banned procedure. Instead, the majority relied on the testimony of doctors who had never performed the procedure. As Ginsburg’s dissent made clear, the reasoning of the majority decision was designed to erode women’s status in society and under the law. The majority preferred ideology to facts, patriarchy to equality.
At a time when facts, particularly medical facts, are attacked every day and gender and racial equality are more precarious than ever, the loss of Justice Ginsburg is more than heartbreaking: It is terrifying.
Heather K. Love, professor and associate chair in the Department of English and author of “Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History” (2007)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not write the recent Supreme Court opinions that have transformed the lives of LGBTQ people in the U.S. She consistently supported decisions on behalf of gay rights during her tenure, beginning with the 1996 Romer v. Evans case that overturned a Colorado law seeking to exclude gays and lesbians from the Equal Protection Clause, to the historic 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County decision that sexual orientation and gender identity were covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The 2015 decision regarding the legality of gay marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges) perhaps gets more attention as inaugurating full civic equality of LGBTQ people, but such equality cannot be achieved without the kinds of protection from workplace and other forms of discrimination afforded by Bostock. In commentary from the bench and elsewhere, Ginsburg made an eloquent case for marriage equality, linking this expansion of marriage to gays and lesbians to the fortunes of women in marriage. In oral arguments regarding Obergefell, she pointed to the Supreme Court’s 1982 overturning of Louisiana’s Head and Master Rule, which gave entire control of marital property to a woman’s husband.
Even more significant arguably was Ginsburg’s decadeslong commitment to a robust interpretation of equality. This ability to read civil rights law expansively led to early victories on behalf of gender equality while Ginsburg was working for the ACLU, and it clearly paved the way for the extension of Title VII to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, and transgender people in the workforce. The question now, of course is whether these rights can be maintained in the face of the widespread erosion of freedoms on all sides. But Ginsburg has given us a road map of how to use the civil protections that are written into law to fight for those freedoms.