“We won’t settle for tokens.” Remembering the Great Ruth Bader Ginsburg

We at Sanctuary for Families join in mourning the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a pioneering advocate for civil rights and gender equality and a jurist of historic stature. We commit ourselves to honor her legacy by carrying on her work and protect it from being undone.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a true feminist icon and tenacious dissenter, paved the road for women in law and changed the culture for women in America. A daughter of a Russian immigrant, she began her legal career in 1956 at Harvard as one of only nine women who were famously shamed for “taking the place of a man” within a class of about 500. Two years later, she transferred to Columbia Law School, where she became the first woman ever to be on two major law reviews — the Harvard Law Review and the Columbia Law Review — and graduated in 1959 at the top of her class.

In 1963, at a time when there were less than 20 female law professors in the United States, Ginsburg landed a teaching job at Rutgers Law School and eventually received tenure. By the early 1970s, she had co-founded the groundbreaking Women’s Rights Law Reporter and transferred to Columbia Law School, where she became the first tenured female professor in 1972. That same year, Ginsburg co-founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. Between 1973 and 1976, in her role as director, Ginsburg argued six gender discrimination cases before an all-male Supreme Court. She won five of them, transforming the constitutional understanding of gender and creating the legal framework for preventing discrimination “on the basis of sex.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg receiving Sanctuary’s 2002 Abely Award for Leading Women and Children to Safety.

After thirteen years of service on the DC Court of Appeals, in 1993, Ginsburg became the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court. Over the course of her 27 years on our nation’s highest bench, Ginsburg brought her constitutional analysis to arduously defend women’s and civil rights. In the landmark case United States v. Virginia, Ginsburg authored the Court’s opinion which struck down the  long-standing male-only admission policy of the Virginia Military Institute and any law that “denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature — equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society.”

Even when in the minority, Justice Ginsburg’s analysis could bring about change. Her masterful dissent in the court’s opinion on Ledbetter v. Goodyear inspired the 2008 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a statute that put an increased burden on employers so that employees were better able to make for pay discrimination.

Most recently, she joined the majority for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a case that struck down parts of a Texas law that placed restrictions on the delivery of abortion services. In her concurring opinion, Ginsburg argued that it was “beyond rational belief that [such regulations on abortion providers] could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law ‘would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions.”

The Honorable Judith S. Kaye, 1997 Abely Honoree, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Sanctuary’s 2002 Abely Awards.

Eighteen years ago, Sanctuary had the honor to present Ruth Bader Ginsburg with the Maryellen Abely Award for Leading Women and Children to Safety— an award given annually to a person who has worked for the empowerment of women through the legal system and shares the compassion, energy, and dedication for which we remember Maryellen Abely, one of our first pro bono attorneys. While presenting Justice Ginsburg with the award, we offered the following tribute:

“Through intellectual force, you have changed our world. For the women and children at Sanctuary for Families, relief from the legal disabilities imposed by marriage and gender makes possible their escape from the emotional, physical and economic oppression wrought by their abusers. Without your work, ours would not be possible. For your vision, persistence and effectiveness, we confer upon you our highest honor.”

A giant of American jurisprudence and a relentless champion for the rights of women and minorities, Justice Ginsburg embodied the values that lie at the core of Sanctuary’s mission to end gender violence. It is up to us to create her legacy and to continue her work to ensure the “equal citizenship stature of [all] men and women”, regardless of race, creed, or origin. At Sanctuary for Families, we recommit ourselves to that vision in her honor.

May her memory be a revolution.