Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a titan of law, a voice of righteousness, and a champion for the underdog. With her passing comes not only a renewed spotlight on the fight for women’s equal justice under the law, but also a greater focus on the issues that are ripping our country apart this election year.
I’ve always viewed the struggle for gender equality as a woman’s ability to exercise her right to participate in a free society. Having been brought up as Roman Catholic and attending Catholic schools and university, I viewed the arbitrary barriers against women as assaults on my religious freedom. I was taught the importance of Christ’s imperatives to not hide one’s light under a bushel and make the best use of one’s talents. Committing one’s life to help humanity in whatever way you were inspired through prayer and reflection to be most inclined and capable of doing was a sacred responsibility—not something subject to capricious edicts. As a schoolgirl, I thought that working hard and getting top grades were the only hurdles I needed to overcome to follow my life’s purpose.
My father, a truck mechanic, told me that I would be a “professional woman” when I grew up. He cautioned my sister and me not to be an ornament or decoration, but to leave the world a better place. His idea that we needed to be well-rounded so as to better compete with offspring from wealthier families as we made our way in the world manifested in our hobbies and extracurriculars. I started piano lessons when I was five years old, and they ended when I was 18. When I was about 11 or 12, my father took me to the local playground in the summer to take tennis lessons. Of course, I would also go to college — no ifs, ands, or buts about it – and when I graduated and stepped foot into the real world, I was armed with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics and had received stellar grades. As such, I assumed that I would be welcomed into the corporate world and treated on an equal footing with men.
That proved to be delusional.
It was the 1970s, after all. While I had plenty of scholarships and other awards that got me through college, it became apparent that it would be more challenging to be taken seriously because I was a woman from a non-Ivy League university. While some talk about affirmative action to get more women into the workplace, for many of the men ruling those professions, it was viewed as a means of giving women special treatment. That a woman would not have even been considered for a position no matter her capabilities or credentials didn’t seem to register as unfair. No one ever said anything if a young man got special treatment because of who his father was, what fraternity he is from, or that he could play a mean golf game. Such considerations should not have had any more or less merit in terms of the ability to do the job than other capabilities and life experiences a young woman might bring to the corporation.
Now that I’m a senior citizen getting close to 70, I can look back on my earlier career as an engineer and appreciate the successes I had. My accomplishments in my second (and current) career as a technology journalist are also a comfort. But how I feel now doesn’t take away the sting of the insults I experienced when I was much younger. Would I have continued my engineering career instead of switching to another if I had thought I would have been able to make more of a difference? I don’t know. I always wanted to excel at many different pursuits, so the answer isn’t clear. But there is still evidence of the discrimination I faced. Current accounts of what women are experiencing in the workplace, and the uphill battles facing kids from working-class families who want a fair shot, show that there is still work to be done.
In Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s fight for equal protection under the law, I see how it impacted my own story. Her fight to ensure that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment had teeth and meant something for both women and men was of great consequence to so many. The cases she won, her legacy of expansionist legal theory, her grace and compassion all worked towards an America where the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness is not infringed upon by institutions, nor by the state. It’s clear we still have a long way to go before equal protection under the law becomes a reality, but we can all honor Justice Bader Ginsburg’s life and vow to carry on the fight.