Campus News

A hero for justice

Carolina law professors reflect on the impact the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had on Americans’ everyday lives.

The 'Fearless Girl' statue by Kristen Visbal in front of the New York Stock Exchange wearing a lace collar in tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The 'Fearless Girl' statue by Kristen Visbal in front of the New York Stock Exchange wearing a lace collar in tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Photo by Jennifer M. Mason)

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a pop culture icon late in her life, as well known for her lacy collars and workouts with weights as she was for her judicial opinions.

But what modern fans of Notorious RBG may not realize is just how much her work has impacted Americans’ — especially American women’s — everyday lives.

Thanks to Ginsburg:

  • Women can attend any state-funded schools (United States v. Virginia, 1996);
  • women can apply for credit cards or mortgages without having a man co-sign (Equal Credit Opportunity Act, 1974);
  • pregnant women no longer have to quit, or get fired from, their jobs (Struck v. Secretary of Defense);
  • women can’t be excluded from serving on juries (Duren v. Missouri, 1979);
  • same-sex couples can marry in all 50 states (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015);
  • military husbands get the same spousal benefits as military wives (Frontiero v. Richardson, 1973); and
  • widowers can receive the same Social Security survivor benefits as widows (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld).

    Watercolor and ink original artwork of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Lauren Russell (BA '12, JD ’18)

    Watercolor and ink original artwork by Lauren Russell (BA ’12, JD ’18). As a 2L, Russell aided in the coverage of the October 2016 term of the U.S. Supreme Court as an intern at National Public Radio.

While flashier feminists like Gloria Steinem were grabbing the headlines in the 1960s and 1970s, “in the background was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, systematically taking on the legal battle against gender discrimination in a way that changed everything about our society today. Everything,” said Beth S. Posner, director of the Domestic & Sexual Violence Clinic and clinical associate professor of law in the School of Law. “Every woman in every profession and every heterosexual woman who has a semblance of equality in her marriage owes a debt to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s methodical attack on gender inequality in the courts.”

As a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, Ginsburg often attacked gender inequity from an unexpected angle, showing the mostly male judicial system how men could face discrimination in certain cases.

“It’s not just issues affecting women, although those are too numerous to count — it’s also rules allowing men to receive their wives’ benefits, or enabling men as well as women to take Family and Medical Leave, so that men (and not just women) can take time off from work to devote to caring for their families,” said Joan Krause, Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor of Law in the School of Law. “Our current advocacy efforts were made possible largely because of Justice Ginsburg’s work: Without her efforts to advance the cause of equality, the legal landscape would be far more limited for all of us today.”

As a Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg was sometimes as influential in her dissents as when she wrote for the majority. One example was how her powerful dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear in 2007, calling for changes in the laws regarding equal pay, led to the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for employees to win pay discrimination claims.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg is, without a doubt, a model for what it means to pursue justice in the purest sense,” Posner said. “During this terribly dark time, it was extremely painful to lose perhaps our greatest champion of justice and equality, and I hope that we take this time to mourn her death, celebrate her and the women with whom she labored to bring us equality, and also grieve for what her death means for the future of our court and the future of justice.”