This month, filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen released what they’ve called “an intimate portrait of an unlikely rock star”: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The documentary, titled RBG, is wide-ranging, exploring Justice Ginsburg’s origins and the challenges she faced throughout her career (after all, she was just one of nine women in her Harvard Law class of 500), but we’d like to focus on some of the most important contributions she’s made in the fields of women’s equality and women’s health.
She started her career as a women’s rights attorney for the ACLU.
In the 1970s, Ginsburg, than an attorney, took a position as director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. She represented Sharron Frontiero, a female lieutenant in the Air Force who didn’t qualify for some military benefits given automatically to men. In 1973 during Frontiero v. Richardson, Ginsberg and her team at the ACLU took “a chisel to centuries of encrusted male privilege” in her first argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. (The documentary contains the wonderful audio of her argument.)
Additionally, she “authored the brief in Reed v. Reed that convinced a unanimous Supreme Court to hold for the very first time that the Constitution’s guarantee of Equal Protection applies to women,” Think Progress summarized. “And her brief in Craig v. Boren convinced the Court to hand down its very first decision holding that gender discrimination laws are subject to heightened constitutional scrutiny.” Her work with the ACLU earned RBG the title of the single most important women’s rights attorney in American history.
She has a history of pro-women’s health views (and rulings).
Just take a look at this quote from her 1993 Supreme Court nomination hearing:
It’s her right to decide whether or not to bear a child… This is something central to a woman’s life, to her dignity. It’s a decision that she must make for herself… It is essential to a woman’s equality with man that she be the decision maker, that her choice be controlling.
And later, from her dissent in the famous “Hobby Lobby” case, which considered whether for-profit companies could be exempt from providing contraceptive coverage for religious reasons:
The Government has shown that the contraceptive coverage for which the ACA provides furthers compelling interest in public health and women’s well being. Those interests are concrete, specific, and demonstrated by a wealth of empirical evidence.
In fact, in her awesome 35-page dissent to the court’s ruling, she outlines a myriad of reasons why women might require contraceptive medication, including the fact that childbearing itself is a health risk—and why it’s nobody’s business but women’s (and their doctor’s) whether or not they choose to take it.
We think we can all learn from RBG’s definition of feminism.
Answering a question posed by MAKERS, Justice Ginsburg said:
Feminism… I think the simplest explanation, and one that captures the idea, is a song that Marlo Thomas sang, “Free To Be You And Me.” Free to be, if you were a girl —doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Anything you want to be. And if you’re a boy, and you like teaching, you like nursing, you would like to have a doll, that’s okay, too. That notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers, man-made barriers, certainly not heaven-sent.
More freedom and more options for women (and all people)? That’s what we’re all about.