writings and Reflections

Five Lessons from Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Tara Christie Kinsey

This week, even in her death, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg broke a glass ceiling: today, she became the first woman to lie in state at the Capitol. Justice Ginsburg was the very definition of someone who lived the words of The Hewitt School mission. A true “game changer and ethical leader who forged an equitable, sustainable, and joyous future” for many millions of Americans, Justice Ginsburg not only changed the course of American law but also fundamentally altered the roles of men and women in American society to be more equitable and just. Inspired like so many others by her example, I wish to share five lessons that I believe Justice Ginsburg’s extraordinary life can teach us about how we all can grow into ever more expansive, whole, meaningful, and impactful lives at Hewitt and beyond.

  1. Immersing ourselves in a different culture is one of the most powerful learning experiences we can have. After she graduated first in her class at Columbia Law School in 1959, no law firm would hire her. Being professionally roadblocked, she took a job in Sweden, where the percentage of women lawyers was much higher than in America and where she was struck by the sight of a presiding judge who was eight months pregnant, something that would not have been acceptable in America at the time. Living in Sweden opened Ginsburg’s eyes to the possibility of a more egalitarian society. She never let go of that possibility, because she knew it existed elsewhere.
  2. If we truly care about forging a society that works for all and not just some, then we must engage wholeheartedly with people who hold opposing views. Justice Ginsburg stood up for the rights of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. She also maintained a warm, decades-long, and deeply important friendship with the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia despite their ideological differences. The two famously disagreed on everything from same-sex marriage to gun rights. They called each other “the odd couple.” At a time when so much of our country is deeply, bitterly, and even violently divided along partisan politics, let us learn from this unlikely friendship and seek to bring more diversity of opinion and perspective into our own lives, for it is proximity to difference that breeds true understanding and empathy.
  3. Gender stereotypes hurt both men and women. As a young lawyer, Ginsburg spoke out against “sex role pigeonholing” and fought laws that discriminated on the basis of gender by showing that gender discrimination hurt men as well as women. She fought a provision of the Social Security Act after Stephen Wiesenfeld’s wife died in childbirth. As she explained it in 2008, her client "sought to care for the baby personally, but was denied childcare Social Security benefits then available only to widowed mothers, not to widowed fathers.” Stephen Wiesenfield won a unanimous judgment in the Supreme Court. By showing how gender stereotypes dehumanize us all--not just the marginalized group--Justice Ginsburg won people over to become a part of desired social change. As we seek to redress stereotypes of all kinds, let us rip a page out of her playbook.
  4. True love is about equality and mutual respect, not control and power. Justice Ginsburg’s marriage to her husband Marty Ginsburg is famous for being an example of a loving relationship of equals. Marty was never threatened by his wife’s success, power, or fame. They both worked outside the home decades before that became the norm, and they split child care and domestic duties. She relocated for his career, and he relocated for hers. As Justice Ginsburg said: "Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation." Justice Ginsburg and her husband demonstrated the joys of a marriage of professional and personal equals, and their example has proven a role model for so many others.
  5. To disrupt the status quo and bring about necessary change, we must dissent. Societal change is sometimes fast and sometimes slow, but changemakers combine dogged persistence, patience, and strategy. As Justice Ginsburg said: “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” When in 2006 Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired, Justice Ginsburg found herself the only woman on an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, and she found her voice in dissent. In the landmark 2007 gender pay discrimination case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., she read her dissent from the bench: “In our view, the Court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.” In her dissent, Ginsburg urged Congress to address gender pay discrimination, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill that President Barack Obama signed into law. Justice Ginsburg said: "Dissents speak to a future age. It's not simply to say, 'My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.' But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that's the dissenter's hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow."

A leading advocate for gender equality, Justice Ginsburg served for 27 years on the high court and became a feminist icon who inspired slogans, operas, tattoos, murals, t-shirts, and millions of young women who never even knew that the legal profession was once reserved for male lawyers. Fiercely intelligent, brave, persistent, and resolute, she was truly a “pathmaker,” which was one of her favorite words. At Hewitt, we honor Justice Ginsburg’s legacy and memory by living the words of our mission and by following her example as we blaze our own trails and forge our own paths to an even better future.

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