As a fan of justice and equality, I was happy to hear recently that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg intends to remain on the bench for at least five more years. She even has her law clerks in place for the next two terms.
At the age of 85, Justice Ginsburg still has a great deal to teach us through her rulings and opinions, especially when it comes to gender rights.
Indeed, I believe that one of Justice Ginsburg’s greatest contributions to the Supreme Court—and to American life in general—is her deep and personal understanding of how the law affects women, a group that obviously makes up half of the country’s population.
If Justice Ginsburg had retired this year, we would have lost her unique and vital perspective. While it goes without saying that men and younger women can make excellent judges (I was one such judge at a point in my life), such individuals haven’t navigated intense gender discrimination in quite the same way that Justice Ginsburg has for decades.
Facing Inequity Head-On
Justice Ginsburg has been candid about the sexism and sexual harassment she’s dealt with over the years. When she was an undergraduate at Cornell University, a chemistry professor implied that he would give her answers to an exam in exchange for sexual favors.
When she was studying at Harvard Law School, a number of male students and administrators criticized her just for being there. They felt that her position in the class should have gone to a man.
During the 1960s, it was hard for Justice Ginsburg to find a job as a law clerk because she was a woman. Later on, when she sought a position at a law firm, the salaries she was offered were significantly less than the salaries male applicants were offered.
Deciding in Favor of Equal Rights
Fortunately for all of us, Justice Ginsburg has been able to make various forms of gender discrimination illegal. Let’s consider just two of her major rulings.
In 1996, the United States sued the Virginia Military Institute because it wouldn’t admit women. The college’s position was that women weren’t capable of completing its training programs. Justice Ginsburg authored the majority opinion that forced the Institute to accept female candidates, stating that the Constitution guarantees equality between men and women.
In 2007, Justice Ginsburg wrote the minority opinion in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. That case involved a Goodyear night manager named Lilly Ledbetter who discovered, late in her career, that she was earning much less than the men who held the same position at the company. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Ledbetter due to a technicality. They said she waited too long to file her lawsuit.
However, Justice Ginsburg’s powerful dissent explained how companies can hide gender salary discrepancies, and she argued that no time limit should have applied to Ledbetter. Although she lost that case, Justice Ginsburg won a major victory in the end. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. It eased the statute of limitations for lawsuits related to gender pay discrimination.
A Magnificent Career and a Terrific Role Model
Women in America and around the world still face challenges and biases that men don’t. It’s a basic fact. And I know that only women can really feel the burden of overcoming those hurdles. Justice Ginsburg, over the course of a long and fruitful career, has given our nation a vivid understanding of these social problems. Simply put, she’s a wife—now a widow—and a mother whose decisions have helped pave the way for generations of women to succeed at work.
For that reason, among many others, I believe Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a particularly wise and valuable jurist. Long may she rule!
Leah Ward Sears is a former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and is a partner at Smith, Gambrell & Russell.