As Antonin Scalia once noted in a profile he wrote on his friend Ruth Bader Ginsburg for TIME’s 100 Most Influential People, the Brooklyn-born Supreme Court Justice has had two notable legal careers—“either one of which would alone entitle her to be one of TIME’s 100.”
One of those careers is of course the time she spent serving as the leader of the liberal wing of the Supreme Court. During her 27-year tenure she became known for her whip-smart and withering dissents in which she skillfully pointed out the holes in the logic of her colleague's arguments. “She will take a lawyer who is making a ridiculous argument and just shake him like a dog with a bone,” said Scalia.
The other career Scalia was referring to were the years Ginsburg spent as an attorney for the ACLU arguing sex discimination cases in front of the Supreme Court. Throughout the ‘70s, Justice Ginsburg appeared before the Supreme Court on six occasions and won five out of the six cases she participated in. That’s an incredible track record. What’s even more remarkable though is the cunning strategy she used throughout those cases to convince an all-male court that discriminating on the basis of sex was not only wrong but in violation of the 14th amendment of the constitution which guarantees equal protection to all citizens under the law.
To do so, she presented men, not women, as the ultimate victims of sex discrimination—her logic being that “Almost every discrimination that operates against males, operates against females as well.” In one case, a widower was denied survivor benefits based on a Social Security provision that assumed women were secondary providers with unimportant incomes (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 1975). In another case, a husband of a female pilot in the Air Force was refused military benefits based on the assumption that a man was not likely to be the dependent spouse (Frontiero v. Richardson, 1973).
In both cases, Ginsburg argued on behalf of the men and won. But women won too. By challenging laws that were based on outdated stereotypes of women, Ginsburg expanded the lanes available to women in American society. Thanks to Ginsburg, the courts no longer assumed that women weren’t capable of being primary providers or heads of their households.
Alongside Justice Ginsburg’s victories, came an increased understanding within the Supreme Court that any discrimination based on sex must be scrutinized at a higher level. That understanding was eventually codified in 1976 in Craig v. Boren. In that case, which Ms. Ginsburg worked on, the Supreme Court struck down an Oklahoma law that allowed women to buy beer at age 18 but forbade men from doing so until they were 21. By striking down the law, the justices (reluctantly or not) admitted that the 14th amendment’s promise of equal protection under the law extended to equality of the sexes.
In addition to helping undo sexist stereotypes of women, the cases that Justice Ginsburg argued in the ‘70s also provided legal precedence for future rulings. One such ruling was the court’s fateful decision in 1996 in the United States v. Virginia that Virginia Military Institute’s male-only administration policy was unconstitutional. In her most famous majority opinion, Ginsburg wrote that the state of Virginia had failed to provide the “exceedingly persuasive justification” that the Constitution required for treating men and women differently. What she failed to mention in that opinion was that, before she came along, the constitution had never been interpreted in such a way.
Ginsburg achieved historical advancements for women not by strong-arming or shouting, nor by political gamesmanship. Rather, her approach was positively zen. Instead of trying hopelessly to force a new reality for women into being, she worked within the limits of the present moment to create meaningful change. And because of Justice Ginsberg’s patient persistence, women today are able to enjoy well-established rights that are supported by historical precedence. As we all make our way through what is sure to be a hellish and cynical attempt by Republicans to warp the law to their liking, we’d be wise to honor Justice Ginsberg’s legacy by preparing to fight long and hard for the preservation of the rights she won on our behalf.
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