Alison Beyea is the executive director of the ACLU of Maine.
The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a stunning blow.
Our country has lost a fierce defender of women’s rights and equal justice for all, a groundbreaking and glass-ceiling shattering judge, a cultural icon and role model.
One of my earliest memories from childhood is attending a rally with my mother in San Antonio, Texas, supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee legal equality regardless of sex. I remember cheering along with others, with chants calling for fairness and justice.
In the early ‘70s, sex discrimination affected every part of women’s lives: education, employment, reproductive rights, mortgages, credit cards, loans, house rentals, prison and the military.
The law treated women as lesser than men in most pursuits outside the home and offered scant protection for women who wanted to work, or women who had to work to support their families.
Women could get fired for being pregnant. Employers could legally pay women less than men. Women had little legal protection from sexual harassment in the workplace. Women had little ability to choose whether or when to get pregnant. This combination of a lack of bodily autonomy and legal workplace discrimination meant women were often dependent on men, even if they were abusive, for economic security.
State laws didn’t even begin to recognize marital rape as a crime until the 1970s.
The effect of these legal regimes — the purpose of these legal regimes — was to keep women from fully participating in their social and political lives.
I went to that Texas rally with my mother, an organizer for the nascent Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, a project led by Ginsburg. As a child, I was surrounded by powerful women role models advocating fiercely for women’s rights and equality, at a time when that was a novel concept.
I became a lawyer because of their example.
Throughout the ’70s, the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU — with Ginsburg at the helm — participated in hundreds of sex discrimination cases, and 34 of them went to the Supreme Court. These efforts established the modern legal prohibitions against sex discrimination and set the foundation for future women’s rights advocacy.
Ginsburg changed the lives of women in the United States. Through her work as an attorney, as the director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and as a justice of the Supreme Court, she helped to chart a new course for our country, and steer us closer to the ideals of justice and equality.
In 1971, Ginsburg wrote her first Supreme Court brief in the case Reed v. Reed, and it was the first time the Supreme Court struck down a law for discriminating on the basis of sex. The idea that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment could apply to sex discrimination is attributed to Pauli Murray, an African-American activist and lawyer.
Murray put forth the equal protection argument in a 1965 ACLU case challenging an Alabama law that excluded Black women from serving on juries. Ginsburg named Murray as a co-author of the Reed brief, even though Murray was not involved in the case, to recognize her contributions to the development of the legal theory. Just as we look to Ginsburg’s example and stand on her shoulders, Ginsburg stood on the shoulders of the pioneers of justice who came before her.
Ginsburg’s death comes at an extremely consequential moment for our nation. While her fight as a lawyer was for women’s rights, she used her time on the Supreme Court to expand rights for women and defend the rights of marginalized groups.
We still have so much left to do to ensure full equality for women, LGBTQ people, people of color, people with disabilities and poor people. There is still so much we have to do to protect the rights of all voters and to defend our civil liberties.
In Washington today, the fight has begun over who will fill Ginsburg’s empty seat on the Supreme Court, and voters in November will choose who will lead our country. The consequences will be felt for years to come.
Whatever happens, we take inspiration from Ginsburg and forge ahead. We build on the contributions of those who came before us, we clasp hands as a movement, we move forward together and we are joined by new generations of activists taking up the chant, demanding our country live up to its highest ideals.