By Brendan Wilson
In 1956, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was just one of 9 women in her Harvard Law class of 500 students. During her first year, the school’s then-dean asked each woman to justify taking the place that would have otherwise gone to a man. “I find it important to understand the work of my husband,” was Ginsburg’s snide reply.
She would go on to launch a 62-year legal career during which she would serve as professor, litigator, Appellate Court judge, and Supreme Court justice, culminating with her death on Friday at age 87. The enormous impact she had on the law during her life was the resounding justification to the prejudiced challenge made back at Harvard. She was a crusader for gender equality, carrying into battle the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause as her banner. Through fortitude and a stiff upper lip, she boldly upended the status quo of gender norms and challenged the notion that the work of a woman was different than that of a man.
As a litigator, Ginsburg argued 5 cases before the Supreme Court, employing the shrewd strategy of representing men in cases in which equal protection was denied. For example, she argued against an Oklahoma law that allowed women to buy beer at 18 while setting the minimum age for men at 21 (Craig v. Boren). She also argued against a gender-based distinction in the Social Security Act that allowed widows, but not widowers, to collect payments to provide for their children (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld).
In 1993, the Senate confirmed her as the second female justice of the United States Supreme Court by a vote of 96-3. Initially regarded as a moderate, she would drift leftward, eventually becoming the de-facto leader of the court’s liberal wing. Her popularity among the left soared following her fiery dissent against the decision to invalidate a key portion of the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v. Holder). Her support among progressives swelled again after she broke with court norms in 2016 by criticizing then-candidate Donald J Trump. “I can’t imagine what the country would be with Donald Trump as our president." Before long, her visage was emblazoned on bumper stickers, children’s shirts, and featured in YouTube parodies in which law students put her words to Notorious BIG songs. In 2018, the biopic The Notorious RBG further elevated the status of her cult.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg devoted her life to granting women access to opportunities once denied to them. Her career unlocked doors for countless women, but there is a long list of trailblazing women who came before her, without whom her own rise would not have been possible.
Margaret Brent was born to nobility, the daughter of an aristocratic family in 17th century England. Accordingly, her life should have been a comfortable one of social engagements and parlor games. But this dull life of leisure did not suit her ambition, so in 1638, she left to find adventure in the New World.
Brent arrived in the British American town of St. Mary’s City, where she found that a person’s ability to succeed was based more on merit than birth. Within a decade of her arrival, she became a landowner and prominent tobacco farmer.
A few years later, a violent civil war between Charles I and Parliament spilled over into the British colonies, creating havoc for the colonists. The powerful Governor that held the colony together, Lord Calvert, died in 1647 without a will, leaving the affairs of the colony in turmoil. On his deathbed, he appointed Brent executor to his enormous estate. She averted disaster by selling some of the estate’s assets to pay Maryland’s soldiers, which were on the verge of mutiny. Through these and several other legal actions taken on behalf of Lord Calvert’s estate, crisis in the colony was forestalled and order restored. She was the first woman to practice law in North America.
Myra Bradwell was born in Vermont in 1831 and settled in Chicago, where she became interested in politics and the law. In 1868, she launched the newspaper the Chicago Legal News, the first legal publication edited by a woman. Within a few years, it was one of most widely circulated legal newspapers in the country. Myra used the platform to advocate for women’s rights and equal protection under the law.
In 1869, she studied for and passed the bar exam, but was not admitted because, according to the law, she was unable to enter into contracts without her husband’s consent. She appealed her case to the US Supreme Court, which ruled against her. But in an outstanding display of how our government was intended to function, the case attracted the attention of many state legislators, which began to pass statues granting women more freedom. In 1872, Illinois passed a law stating that “no person shall be precluded or debarred from any occupation, profession, or employment (except military) on account of sex.”
In 1890, the Supreme Court of Illinois granted Bradwell her legal license, making her the first woman to practice law in the United States. In 1994, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY.
Genevieve Rose Cline
Thanks to doors opened by Myra Bradwell, Genevieve Rose Cline was able to study for and receive her law degree in 1921. Early in her career, she became involved in law, local politics, and women’s clubs in Cleveland, Ohio. She served as president of the Cleveland Federation of Women’s Clubs and chairman of the Ohio Federation of Women’s Clubs. After distinguishing herself in private legal practice, she was the first woman to be assigned the position of appraiser of merchandise for the US Department of the Treasury in 1922.
In 1928, Calvin Coolidge nominated her for a judgeship on the US Custom’s Court. She was confirmed despite many senators being opposed to her gender and lack of experience. She took her oath on June 5th and served 25 dignified years, working tirelessly, and taking little time off. She was the first woman appointed to the federal bench.
Sandra Day O’Conner
Born in 1930 and raised on an Arizona cattle ranch with no running water or electricity, Sandra Day O’Conner was brought up with an ingrained sense of hard work and grit. At a young age, she displayed a rare aptitude for reading and writing that led her parents to send her away from home for a better education.
Years later, despite a selection process that favored male applicants, she was accepted into Stanford, where she earned an economics degree in 1950 and a law degree in 1952. She served on the esteemed board of editors of the Stanford Law Review and graduated 3rd in her class of 102, narrowly beaten out by future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
She later relocated to Arizona where she entered private practice, but soon became involved in state politics, where she served as the first female majority leader of the upper house of a state legislature. In addition, she founded and chaired both the Arizona Women’s Lawyers Association and the National Association of Women Judges.
She was nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1981 as the first female Supreme Court Justice and was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 99-0. During her 24 years as justice, she was “highly regarded as an independent thinker and a leader on the court.”
These are just a few of the pioneers and ceiling breakers that helped to make Ginsburg’s career possible. Now, her death has given rise to a tragicomic spectacle of dirty politics as Democrats and Republicans wrangle over her empty seat. How that will play out is uncertain. What is certain is that it will be ugly.
It will always be the intention of these entries to remain politically neutral, which I believe is possible while recognizing the outsize impact of her career on the slow march towards gender equality. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard, just 2% of law students were female. At the time of her death, that number has risen to 50%. On Friday, she will break one final glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to lie in state on Capitol Hill.
Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved September 23, 2020, from https://oconnorinstitute.org/civic-programs/oconnor-history/sandra-day-oconnor-policy-archives-research-library/biography/
How Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a trailblazer for gender equality. (n.d.). Retrieved September 23, 2020, from https://www.economist.com/democracy-in-america/2018/05/14/how-ruth-bader-ginsburg-became-a-trailblazer-for-gender-equality
Maldonado, J. (2019, April 18). 10 Trailblazing Female Attorneys Who Shaped American History. Retrieved September 23, 2020, from https://www.practicepanther.com/blog/female-lawyers-american-history/
Margaret Brent (ca. 1601-ca. 1671). (n.d.). Retrieved September 23, 2020, from https://msa.maryland.gov/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/002100/002177/html/brochure.html
Myra Bradwell: The First Woman Admitted to the Illinois Bar. (n.d.). Retrieved September 23, 2020, from https://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/committees/minority-trial-lawyer/practice/2017/myra-bradwell-first-woman-admitted-to-illinois-bar/
PeoplePill. (n.d.). About Genevieve R. Cline: American Judge (1877 - 1959): Biography, Facts, Career, Wiki, Life. Retrieved September 23, 2020, from https://peoplepill.com/people/genevieve-r-cline/
Stein, R., & Felling, M. (2020, September 18). The Radical Project of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Retrieved September 23, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/video/obituaries/100000006849413/ruth-bader-ginsburg-obituary.html?searchResultPosition=2