If asked who was the first judge of the Indian Supreme Court, most would have to strain to remember, or would have to look it up, but many more would have heard of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away on September 18, at the age of 87. She was not the first woman to be appointed to the US Supreme Court—that honour belongs to Sandra Day O’Connor—but she was the one who fought the hardest and the longest for gender equality, contributed greatly as a lawyer and a judge to change American society and came to be regarded as a liberal hero by her many students, clients, associates and admirers.
She went on to become a cultural icon as popular as film stars and rock musicians—her image is found on T-shirts, mugs and other merchandise, she has a rapper name Notorious RBG, memes have been created about her, as well as TV comedy skits produced; books have been written about her, comics made and two films—a documentary titled RBG (2018) by Julie Cohen-Betsy West, and a feature film, On The Basis Of Sex (2018) directed by Mimi Leder, with Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer playing Ruth and Martin Ginsberg. No other legal luminary has had that kind of power and reach.
From all accounts, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had superhuman energy, drive and will, not to mention passion for justice. When she joined Harvard Law School in 1956, one of the nine female students among 500 men, the dean asked them why they were taking the place of a man. Neither film looks at the attitude of the male students towards women crashing a hitherto male bastion, but the condescension of the entitled, white, males in positions of power was enough to make the point.
Her mother had already instilled in her the value of dignity and independence; while she was studying law, she met and married fellow student Martin Ginsburg, who, unlike most men of the time, believed that a woman’s work, whether in the home or outside it, was as important as a man’s and cared that she had a brain (as she says in RBG). Martin suffered from cancer when they were both still in law school and already had a daughter, Jane. She attended her own classes plus his, typed out her own notes and his, at the same time looking after him and the child. She still managed to top her class, making do with little or no sleep. Her friends say in the documentary that she was always serious and had no time for small talk; her husband was the one with the cheerful temperament and sense of humour. Together or alone, they were both formidable legal experts. She was also a brilliant writer and orator.
When she graduated from Columbia Law School (she had to move to New York for her husband’s career) she could not find a job, because no law firm would hire a woman. In the film, an otherwise sympathetic potential employer gives the ridiculous excuse that in the small office where everyone was like family, the wives would be jealous of a woman. This after being told, among other insulting things, that women were too emotional to be lawyers.
Her daughter (she also had a son, James), who grew up to be a firebrand activist and lawyer, is quoted as having said that in their home the work was divided equally, her father did the cooking, her mother did the thinking.
American society was going through an upheaval, there were strong civil rights campaigns, the women’s liberation movement was at its peak, there were activists marching against racial discrimination and the Vietnam War, but the legal system had not kept pace with rapid social changes. As RBG says to an all-male bench in a court scene in the feature film, “We’re not asking you to change the country. That’s already happened without any court’s permission. We’re asking you to protect the right of the country to change.”
In a conservative society that believed men were meant to be breadwinners and women homemakers, there were horribly discriminatory laws by which a woman could be fired for getting pregnant, marital rape was not a crime, there was no concept of equal pay for men and women.
The feature film focuses on the case she fought alongside her tax lawyer husband with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue –in which a man who was sole carer of his invalid mother, was denied a tax deduction given to caregivers, because of his gender– traditionally women were supposed to be caregivers. In real life, the first case she argued as amicus curiae before the Supreme Court was the landmark Frontiero v. Ricardson, in which Sharron Frontiero, a lieutenant in the US Air Force, applied for housing and medical benefits for her husband, whom she claimed as a dependent and it was denied, while servicemen could claim their wives as dependents and get benefits.
If she fought for equal pay for equal work in another landmark Ledbetter v. Goodyear case, she also stood for for the rights of a man in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, when a widower was denied social security benefits for staying home to look after his minor child, when widows were offered “mother’s benefits.” She fought for the right of women to enter the hitherto all-male Virginia Military Institute, and also for people with disabilities. Her judgments and dissents, her views on, race, abortion and LGBT issues were unarguably anti-discrimination.
She believed that if the right legal framework could be developed, social change would follow. She rattled the cage of the conservative establishment all her life, and was called evil, monstrous, anti-American and anti-family by them. She was also always impeccably dressed—her jabot collars being a style statement in themselves– enjoyed the opera, worked out at the gym and battled cancer twice.
Her influence on contemporary American society is immeasurable. In both films she quotes early human rights activist Sarah Grimke who had said, “I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” Till there is even one foot of the strong, on one neck of the weak, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s ferocious idealism and humanism will be missed.
To answer the question mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the first woman judge of the apex court was Justice Fathima Beevi, who was appointed in 1989, 39 years after the Supreme Court was set up. She was elevated to the Supreme Court after her retirement as a judge of the Kerala High Court.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated September 23, 2020)