At Home Abroad: “Free to be you and me.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg
By Regina Costello
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (aka RBG) stood at the helm as an advocate for equality; equality for all, men and women, and all Americans regardless of ethnicity, religion or persuasion. She wasn’t against laws that favored men only. She did not aspire to have these laws abolished. She knew better than that.
She cleverly worked to change these laws to ensure they applied to everyone – men and women. She additionally pushed for laws favorably applicable to women only, to also be inclusive of men. Somehow, a tiny woman with a shy personality who loved horses and opera, through sheer grit became a giant in the American justice sphere, champion for many, and a household name the world over.
It is true that she earned the respect and admiration of many, including those with a viewpoint polar opposite to hers, most notably, Justice Scalia. However, as a woman who faced discrimination from a young age based on her gender, equal rights for women was the first bullet point on her agenda. Gifted with tenacity and intellectual acuity, she used skillful tactics to gently persuade others to consider methods inclusive to all, that also provided for individualism.
Before her death, I was unaware of the true giant that she was in life.
Since then, I have sought out articles about her life, and surf the channels in my car as I’m out and about, eager to listen to yet another interview with or about her. I have shared snippets of her life experiences with my daughter Fiona, in the hope that she will be inspired by her and learn to view that disappointments in life can be opportunities, as RBG did.
I hope her advice resonates with Fiona: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” I’m trying to encourage her to learn that successful outcomes are more likely accomplished with quiet persuasion than loud protests. Unfortunately, I am guilty of the latter and continue to suffer the consequences.
American Justice Made More Just
Much has been documented about Justice Ginsburg’s professional accomplishments that in some respects changed the face of American justice, and in doing so, opened doors that were bolted shut to many in society, that included her. As a young Harvard student, she and other female students were asked by the Dean why they should be offered the spots instead of men. Perhaps this experience set in motion her career, because upon graduation, she identified and challenged laws based on stereotypes.
It seems that her premise to law revolved around the 14th Amendment that enabled her to win and make real change. It reads:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”.
She shared the following in an NPR interview: “Well that word, ‘any person,’ covers women as well as men. And the Supreme Court woke up to that reality in 1971.”
Recognizing that wake-up call, and to seize the momentum, RBG knew it was now or never, and she proceeded to tackle one case after another. In 1971, she wrote her first Supreme Court brief when she represented Sally Reed in Reed v. Reed. Ms. Reed believed she should be the executor of her son’s estate instead of her ex-husband.
The issue at hand was if a state could automatically prefer men over women as executors of estates. The Supreme Court – all men at that time- voted NO.
The First Gender Discrimination Breakthrough
This was the first time the Supreme Court struck down a state law that discriminated based on gender. RBG ploughed on. She worked on a case in Oklahoma where the law allowed girls to buy beer at 18 years of age – but not boys. The nine men on the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 ruled that the Oklahoma law was unconstitutional AND that future cases of gender classification would face more scrutiny. RBG was becoming an unrelenting force and voice of justice.
A topic that greatly interested her was Social Security Law, because it was riddled with gender bias and provided a potential avenue for her to make substantive change to ease the lives of thousands of American men and women. In one case, RBG represented Charles Moritz, a bachelor. The law prevented him from taking a tax deduction for taking care of his 89-year-old mother.
At the time, the IRS allowed for this deduction to be claimed by women or widowed or divorced men. As a single man, Moritz did not qualify for the benefit.
The tax court ruled that the IRS code was “immune to constitutional challenge.” Both RBG and her husband Marty both took on the case. She won the case in the lower court by arguing to have the law equally applied to both sexes.
This “Mother Brief” paved the way for RBG to win additional cases of equality between the sexes. She won a similar case for Stephen Wiesenfeld in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld. Upon the death of his wife, Wiesenfeld was denied social security benefits for himself but that his son was an eligible recipient.
At that time, the Act provided benefits to both widows and children – but not widowers. During the oral argument at the Supreme Court RBG said, “This absolute exclusion, based on gender per se, operates to the disadvantage of female workers, their surviving spouses, and their children.” The Supreme Court agreed – in five of the cases she argued.
And Along Came Mary
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a powerhouse seeking cross border equal rights in the United States. Across the ocean, one can say that Mary Robinson, first female President of Ireland 1990-1997 was another commanding force seeking a different kind of justice for all and has since been described as the most consequential Irish woman of the 20th century.
Like RBG, she was born in a time of gender discrimination in Ireland. Her career in law also began in an era of closed doors to women. As late as 1973 in Ireland, women upon marriage were forced to leave government positions, including teaching jobs.
It’s incredible, that while she attended Harvard University, that ban was still in place in Ireland. Despite such odds, she was appointed Reid Professor of Criminal Law in Trinity College Dublin at 25 years of age.
In a male dominated society, she also worked as a politician, diplomat, and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002). Her election to President truly did shatter the glass ceiling of Irish politics, defeating a strong opponent in Brian Lenihan, who later admitted that she was a more effective person for the job of President than he.
Like RBG, she was painfully aware of gender discrimination in society. As late as the 1990s, Ireland was a male dominant world: women were exempt from serving on juries; upon marriage, women were forced to leave government positions, including teaching jobs; and women were paid approximately half of what men were paid for the same jobs.
Additionally, under the thumb of a powerful Catholic church, forms of birth control were illegal in Ireland. Before her time as President, the local bishop denounced her from the alter in the cathedral in her hometown of Ballina, County Mayo for proposing a family planning bill.
Mary’s father was a physician, whom she sometimes accompanied on house calls, including births. She remembers her father being asked “Is it a boy or a child?”
Rocking the System
As a President, in her own words “she rocked the system”. Mary changed the face of Irish politics and modernized Irish society by removing political cobwebs. Her lighting a candle each night at Áras an Uachtaráin (home of the Irish President) in remembrance of Irish immigrants the world over will always be remembered and appreciated.
Similar to RBG, she was not afraid to speak her mind in an arena filled with objectors. She moved forward, bringing topics of contraception, divorce, travellors’ rights, women’s rights, and the status of the gay community, among others, to the fore, taking the stand of human rights, to an unwelcoming and disinterested audience.
Robinson was astutely aware of her duty as President, as representative of all the people and to work on their behalf, to ensure that civil liberties and human rights were available to all. Like RBG, she used tactics, eloquence and grace to uproot the carpet that hid social inequalities of the day and laid them on the table, front and central.
The Dalai Lama, Gerry Adams, and Famine
She was not afraid to do the right thing when it was unpopular to do so. She met the Dalai Lama despite requests from the Chinese government and Charles Haughey not to do so. She was the first Irish President to meet with Queen Elizabeth and invited Prince Charles as a guest in her home.
Robinson shook the hand of Gerry Adams, arguing she had done so to recognize the fact that he was elected by the people of West Belfast, and as President, they were her people too. She was one of the first world leaders to visit and highlight the hunger and genocide in Somalia and Rwanda. Her presence there reminded the world that this could no longer be ignored.
Leaving the role of Irish President at a remarkable approval rating of 93%, she took on board the cause of human rights at the United Nations. Her work as an authority of human rights in the world stemmed from her role as Irish President.
Both women fought ardently for a better world for all mankind, on the basis that such cannot be achieved without equal rights and human rights. Equality is a human right.
Mary Robinson said, “We must understand the role of human rights as empowering of individuals and communities. By protecting these rights, we can help prevent the many conflicts based on poverty, discrimination and exclusion … that continue to plaque humanity.”
It seems that in order to be “Free to be you and me” as RBG put it, equality and human rights must be in place at home and abroad. During the inauguration on December 3, 1990, Mary Robinson finished her speech with a quote from a W.B. Yeats’ poem “I am of Ireland…. dance with me”.
President Mary Robinson danced the dance. Ruth Bader Ginsberg did too. We all need to keep dancing.
Radcliff Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
The Huffington Post, June 2, 2015
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a Feminist Rock Star: Here’s Why”, Kim Elsesser, Forbes. http://lawcornell.edu/constitution
“Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Champion of Gender Equality, Dies at 87.” NPR, Weekend Edition Saturday, September 18, 2020 http://www.theatlantic.com
“Mary Robinson,” by Michael Marsh Associate Professor and Head, Department of Political Science, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. Co-editor of How Ireland Voted 1997 and Candidate Selection in Comparative Perspective: The Secret Garden…
United Nations Population Fund https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/women/wrgs/pages/wrgsindex.aspx
The Woman who changed Ireland – Mary Robinson turns 75. Niall O’Dowd. @niallodowd. May 23, 2019 https://president.ie/en/the-president/mary-robinson http://www.newstalk.com
I am of Ireland. By William Butler Yeats.
*Regina is a Graduate from the National University of Ireland, Galway and a Post Graduate from the National University of Ireland, Dublin. She is the former Curator of the Irish American Archives at the Western Reserve Historical Society, former Executive Director of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument Commission and former Executive Coordinator of the Northern Ohio Rose Centre. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Mayo Society of Greater Cleveland. She can be reached at email@example.com