Women’s Inequality Has Been Maintained by Force of Law. Ruth Bader Ginsburg Knew This.

Women’s Inequality Has Been Maintained by Force of Law. Ruth Bader Ginsburg Knew This.
A Ruth Bader Ginsburg mural in Washington, D.C. (tedeytan / Creative Commons)

An unwavering warrior, fearlessly on the side of women, has died.   

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death on September 18 must be understood as the transition of both an intellectual luminary and an indefatigable foot soldier for human rights, civil liberties, women’s equality and civil rights. She was both a lover of opera and a scrappy civil libertarian.  She praised Justice Thurgood Marshall during her confirmation hearings and learned and worked alongside one of the most brilliant civil rights leaders, Dr. Pauli Murray.  

An untiring legal champion of women’s equality, Justice Ginsburg and her jurisprudence will surely be the subject of sustained legal interpretation and analysis in the years to come.

Of particular note, she powerfully articulated what the threat to reproductive independence means in the lives of women—especially vulnerable women—including limiting their full participation in society.

She understood that by constraining women’s abilities to be full in their personhood, lawmakers chipped away at their humanity. By denying women control over their reproductive health states infringed not only on legal rights, but also on their human dignity.   

Justice Ginsburg was also deeply aware of the violence situated alongside the call for women’s equality—both state and private violence. During her leadership at the ACLU, hundreds of sex-based discriminatory laws that excluded women from full participation in society were struck down or overturned. She recognized the inhumanity in the state imposing conditions that constrain women’s ability. 

Meanwhile, she was mindful of the private threats that could be (and too frequently are) visited upon women by boyfriends, husbands, employers, and in the contexts of reproductive health, anti-abortion activists. 

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As I penned the closing chapters of Policing The Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood in 2019, the Supreme Court prepared for its next term—one that would include June Medical Services v. Russo.  As the book came to its end, I grew exhausted by the many examples of both state and private violence inflicted on women over time: marital rape, permissive beatings; unequal pay; forced time off due to pregnancy; prohibitions from certain jobs based on sex; infringements on contraceptive access; provisions undermining the abortion right and much more.  

These impediments to women’s full equality were reflected in legislation and court decisions. These were not the futures women imagined for themselves.

Rather, women’s inequality has most often been secured and maintained with the force of law. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew this. During her tenure as the director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, from its founding in 1972 until her appointment on the federal bench in 1980, she guided the organization through hundreds of sex discrimination cases.  The ACLU participated in 66 percent of the Supreme Court’s sex discrimination cases during her time with the organization. 

Women’s Inequality Has Been Maintained by Force of Law. Ruth Bader Ginsburg Knew This.
“My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent,” said Justice Ginsburg. (Tradlands / CC BY 2.0)

Justice Ginsburg took seriously the human dignity of women and girls and her jurisprudence represented that. She understood the myriad ways in which state violence: physical, economic and psychological undercuts women’s potential and undermines their safety, liberty, equality, autonomy and privacy.

She believed that women’s reproductive liberty was central to their full personhood. And she valued the need for law in dismantling the vestiges of centuries of oppressive common law, legislation and more that constrained the foundational aspirations of the constitution in women’s lives.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used the power within her reach to elevate women’s equality. An unwavering warrior on behalf of all peoples—but fearlessly on the side of women—has passed.  

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Michele Bratcher Goodwin is a prolific thoughtleader on matters of constitutional law and health policy. In addition to Ms. magazine, Dr. Goodwin's commentary can be read in The Atlantic, The New York Times, the Nation, CNN and The L.A. Times, among others. She holds the Linda D. & Timothy J. O'Neill chair in constitutional law and global health policy at Georgetown Law School and serves as the co-faculty director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. She is the executive producer of Ms. Studios.