Monday, October 12, 2020
Prof. Margaret Drew brings us this post by UMass Law student Sarah Pierson
I don’t remember the first time I heard Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s name. By the time I was born, she had already spent four years on the Supreme Court and was well-established as a pioneer for gender equality. I remember hearing her name on the evening news when I was a child as my parents made dinner, and slowly beginning to understand her importance on the court. Years later when I was in high school, my aunt gifted me a t-shirt with Justice Ginsburg’s portrait and the words “The Notorious R.B.G” splashed across the front. To this day, it’s one of my favorite shirts and continues to remind me why I think Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a rockstar.
It’s difficult for me to articulate just how much Justice Ginsburg’s feminist jurisprudence means to me. Without her tireless and extensive work on gender and LGBTQ+ issues, many of my colleagues and I might not have the opportunity to study the law. My experiences as a young woman would be so incredibly limited and different if not for her unwavering courage to stand up for equality among the various and colorful sexes and sexualities represented across the country.
In her United States v. Virginia opinion, Justice Ginsburg boldly explained why the Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions policy was unconstitutional. While Virginia offered to create a separate and parallel program for women, Justice Ginsburg’s opinion points out that the two programs are far from equal. Women enrolled in the proposed program would not have access to equal opportunities when compared to the men’s program. In her opinion she wrote, “There is no reason to believe that the admission of women capable of all the activities required of VMI cadets would destroy the Institute rather than enhance its capacity to serve the ‘more perfect Union.’” Opinions such as this caught the attention of the young people that were most affected by it. Younger generations began to see her for more than her seat on the Court. They started to recognize her embodiment of the American dream, the powerful philosophy that states that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can aspire to greatness because that is your right.
To say that Justice Ginsburg was a rockstar among young people during her term on the Supreme Court is an understatement. In the eyes of many, mine included, she was an inspiration both in law and in life. Her work on the Supreme Court reflects strength, willpower, and a fierce determination to fight against the equally determined patriarchal society that constantly attempted to hold her back. I find it empowering that a tiny, Jewish woman from Brooklyn who experienced setback after setback could earn her place on the nation’s highest court and use that as a platform to stand and say “I dissent” for the world to hear.
It’s hard to fathom that the words “I dissent” can hold as much power as Justice Ginsburg gave them. Her dissents are fervent and are characterized by a boldness that, for centuries, women and minority groups have been discouraged from showing. Dissents such as those criticizing the Court’s opinions in the Gonzalez v. Carhart and Masterpiece Cake Shop cases serve as an example for future generations to continue her legacy of confronting barriers to true equality. Nearly all of her dissents echo the overarching theme of her career: that all citizens are entitled to equal protection under the laws of the United States. Whether that equality stems from a woman’s right to easily access an abortion, to a gay couple’s right to purchase a wedding cake regardless of their sexual identity, Justice Ginsburg fought for the individual freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution.
Before her passing, I proudly wore my “Notorious RBG” shirt anywhere I could. Every time I put it on, I felt powerful. It reminded me that I could control my own destiny and that I wasn’t limited because of how others compared me to men. This wasn’t a power that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or anyone else gave to me. It was a power that I felt entitled to because Justice Ginsburg believed I had a right to forge my own path in life. I know that I am not alone in feeling an immense gratitude for her feminist jurisprudence. Without it, I might not be a law student today. What truly made RBG “notorious” was her passion and warmth that so many young people aspire to have combined with her heartfelt belief that everyone has the right to forge their own path in life. I find comfort in the fact that her legacy will continue on for generations to come, and that her teachings, writings, and opinions will undoubtedly continue to inspire a new generation of notorious individuals.