The Center for Women’s History mourns the passing of legal titan and hometown luminary, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. For some time, we have been deep into research and preparations for a museum exhibition in her honor planned for next year, and wanted to share the audio recording from a 2014 public program at the New-York Historical Society in which Ginsburg discussed her career and personal life in a conversation with her former clerk Abbe Gluck.
In one of our favorite moments of the program, Ginsburg explains why the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project pursued legal cases on behalf of men to show how sex discrimination harmed everyone—not just women. She tells the story of the case, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), which she argued in front of the Supreme Court. In November 1972, a widower named Stephen Wiesenfeld—a full-time caregiver after his wife died during childbirth— wrote to the editor of the Newark Star-Ledger about his inability to collect his wife’s Social Security benefits because of the assumption that as a man, he should be employed outside of the home. He concluded, “Had I been paying into Social Security and had I died, [my wife] would have been able to receive benefits, but male homemakers cannot. I wonder if Gloria Steinem knows about this?” Baited by this challenge to one of the main tenets of feminism, Ginsburg took on his case as part of the Women’s Rights Project’s strategy of demonstrating how sex discrimination harmed not only women but men and children as well.
The case was decided in an 8-0 decision to grant survivors’ benefits to any parent, regardless of gender, with the conservative Justice William Rehnquist particularly moved by the existing law’s potential for harming children. In her oral argument, Ginsburg argued that the Social Security system, designed with a male breadwinner model in mind, reinforces the traditional family model to the disadvantage of women who work as well as their surviving family members. In her words as she argued the case, “The prime generator of discrimination encountered by women in the economic sector is the pervasive attitude…that pairs women with children, men with work. This attitude is shored up and reinforced by…laws that tell a woman her employment is less valuable to and supportive of the family than the employment of a male worker.” Further, “laws of this quality help to keep women, not on a pedestal but in a cage. They reinforce, not remedy, women’s inferior position in the labor force.”
In another notable moment, moderator Abbe Gluck asked Ginsberg about how she and her husband, Marty, balanced their dual legal careers and family responsibilities. During the first few decades of their marriage, Ruth took on more than her fair share of the duties at home. This was especially true during Marty’s battle with cancer while the pair was in law school, and then while raising small children and facing employment discrimination. This balance shifted when Ginsburg became a federal judge in 1980, and she reveals that completely stopped cooking that year as Marty took over the reins at home.
Towards the end of the conversation, Ginsburg reflects on the history of legal dissents. She argues that they are important because sometimes they become the “law of the land.” This was certainly the case with her dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co (2007), which laid the groundwork for the Obama administration and Congress to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
At the end of the recording, Ginsburg is asked a question about what she would change about the Constitution if she were writing it today, and in response tackles the fate of the Equal Rights Amendment—an open legal question to this day. She opines, “Our Constitution is a remarkable document…Who were ‘We the people?’ Most people were left out. Not only people held in human bondage, but half the population, and Native Americans as well. But over now more than 200 years, our democracy has become more and more inclusive.” Even so, she continues, “When my three granddaughters look at their pocket Constitution” for a provision granting equal legal stature to men and women “they don’t find it,” even though comparatively, most countries that have developed a constitution since 1950 do. She concludes, “I would like to see that statement as part of our most fundamental principles.”
Written by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History