At The Optimist Daily, we share solutions to promote a culture of determined optimism. This week, we are celebrating the life and legacy of one of the world’s most inspirational determined optimists: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Ginsburg, who passed away September 18 at the age of 87, was a lifelong proponent of equality and justice. Today we reflect on just a few of her incredible achievements.
Ginsburg’s drive to fight for equality was spurred by hurdles she overcame in her own life. After studying as just one of nine women in the entire 500-person Harvard Law School class, she transferred to Columbia Law School where she graduated first in her class. After going on to become the first person ever to sit on both the Harvard and Columbia law reviews, she was also the first female law professor granted tenure at Columbia and eventually became the second woman to ever be appointed to the Supreme Court.
While her long list of breakthroughs into the heavily male-dominated world of law are impressive, even more touching is how she changed the landscape of the country for all women. In her third year on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg argued her famous Virginia Military Institute case in which she supported the abolition of all-male federal military institutes. Ginsburg won the case and in the opinion wrote, “generalizations about ‘the way women are’, estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.”
After co-founding the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, she argued six cases for the organization before the Supreme Court, winning five. In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld in 1975, she fought to make social security benefits available for widowers, not just widows, with children, demonstrating her passion for defeating gender-based discrimination in all forms. Her passionate argument during Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 helped legalize gay marriage in all 50 states and she participated in striking down Texas’ unjust abortion regulations in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt in 2016.
Perhaps even more famous than her legal victories are her blistering dissents in which she stated her opinion loud and clear when she felt the verdict of the court to be unjust. In the 2007 Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company case, the court ruled 5-4 that a Goodyear Tire employee who was receiving lower compensation than her male counterparts was not eligible for legal compensation because she had not filed the complaint within 180 days of the unlawful employment practice. Ginsburg’s very vocal dissent argued that placing statutes of limitation on discrimination further penalizes those who are being mistreated.
When the court decided to eliminate section 4 of the Voting Rights Act which mandated clearance requirements for new voting laws for states with a history of racial discrimination, Ginsburg dissented to the majority opinion, writing, “40 years has not been a sufficient amount of time to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination following nearly 100 years of disregard for the dictates of the 15th amendment.” This dissent also included perhaps her most famous dissenting line, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Despite coming face to face with the realities of discrimination and inequality in this country on a near-daily basis, Ginsburg never lost her sense of optimism and perseverance. In one interview she said, “One of the things that makes me an optimist is the young people.” Speaking at the University of Chicago in 2019 she noted that the great deal of work that must still be done to achieve equality should not overshadow the great achievements that have already been made. “Though we haven’t reached nirvana, we have come a long way from the days when women couldn’t do things just because they were female,” she said.
Ginsburg was a force for equality and voice for the oppressed throughout her entire career. Her pensive yet fiery demeanor propelled her in her professional career and made her the first justice to capture the hearts of many as a cultural icon known as “The Notorious RBG”. As we mourn her passing and celebrate her life, we encourage everyone to honor her legacy by remaining optimistic and determined even in the face of great challenges.