Thank you, RBG

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

On Sept. 18, United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, and around the world, those who knew her words and achievements felt her loss keenly. Justice Ginsburg was not the first woman in the US to become a lawyer, nor a Supreme Court Justice (and in the latter case, the Philippines preceded the USA) but in her fight for equal rights as both an advocate and a judge, she left behind decisions that established a new status quo, and words that provide both template and inspiration as the fight continues.

In the collection called “My Own Words,” Justice Ginsburg wrote that the most frequent question she receives from schoolchildren is: “Did you always want to be a judge?” She pointed out the fact that they can ask that question now is a testament to the progress that had been made.

When she entered law school in 1956, women made up less than three percent of the legal profession in the United States. There were no women on the faculty at the time, and the dean asked the women there why they felt “entitled” to be in the class and taking the place of a man. The discrimination continued even as she distinguished herself academically. After she finished tied for the top of her class at Colombia University, she received no job offers from top firms. Prestigious law schools, even her own alma mater, would not accept her as a teacher, and when she eventually found employment her pay was less than that of the men.

She fought for, and received, equal pay for women teachers. She also began working with the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), taking on discrimination cases, and became the first director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. There she took on cases that sought to persuade the Supreme Court that the equal protection guarantee in the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution should not only be interpreted as applying to discrimination on the basis of race, but to discrimination based on sex as well.

Justice Ginsburg believed that this was a principle that would benefit both sexes, and several of the cases she argued for had male plaintiffs. She said: “We were trying to educate the Court that pigeonholing people because they are a woman or because they are a man… Recognizing that the stereotype might well be true for the vast majority of people, but there are people who don’t fit the mold and they should be allowed to make choices, to live their lives without being pigeonholed...”

When she became a judge, and later a justice of the Supreme Court, her advocacy for equality continued from the other side of the bench. Much of this had to do with the composition of the Court, where women were the constant minority – Justice Ginsburg was the second when she began her service, then the sole woman for a number of years before two more were appointed during the Obama presidency. When asked when there would be enough women in the Supreme Court, she famously answered that it would be enough when there are nine. This was not to say that there should be nine, she explained, but instead to make the point that: “For most of our history… they were… all men. And nobody thought anything was unusual about that.”

When chosen to deliver the opinion of the Court in majority decisions, Justice Ginsburg used the opportunity to make explicit the principles she stood for. In the Virginia Military Institute case, where the Court struck down as unconstitutional the all-male admissions policy of a state-supported military college, she wrote: “Generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women.” But given the conservative composition of the Court, she was more often in the minority rather than the majority. Yet even in “defeat” she would articulate dissents that galvanized people to action, whether these be grassroots organizations or Congress itself.

These strongly worded, though never insulting, dissents gave rise to a newfound celebrity for her in the internet age, with a new wave of young people taking inspiration from the strength of the character of the seemingly frail old woman (although she smashed that stereotype too by being physically fit and regularly working out). Quoting a past chief justice, she said: “A dissent in a court of last resort is an appeal . . . to the intelligence of a future day, when a later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting judge believes the court to have been betrayed.”

The world has progressed much since Justice Ginsburg’s law school days, but the archaic stereotypes and unconscious bias that Justice Ginsburg fought against are still prevalent in many aspects of life. Whether it be in the way women are harassed online, or biased algorithms, or the perennial victim blaming whenever a woman comes forward with an allegation of rape, there is much work that remains to be done. That women have been president of the Philippines does not mean that your neighbor’s wife is safe from marital rape or that your sister isn’t passed over for a promotion because she is pregnant.

The inequalities that cage women are deeply embedded in the fabric of society, and no single person, or court, can instantly erase them. But what Justice Ginsburg’s words, what her life, has shown us is that change is possible: change not in spite of the law, but because of the law – because of a reading of a Constitution that is consistent with the basic principles of equality and freedom that inspired it. As a woman, she was a testament to all a woman could be – as a justice, she was the embodiment of all the law should be.

She once said: “How fortunate I was to be alive and a lawyer when… it became possible to urge, successfully, before legislatures and courts, the equal-citizenship stature of women and men as a fundamental constitutional principle.”

How fortunate the world was, that she was alive at all.


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