It’s difficult to know where to begin celebrating the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her lifelong fight to expand civil rights and bring our nation closer to realizing the promises enshrined in the Constitution.
Justice Ginsburg led a life of firsts. As one of only nine women in her class at Harvard Law School, she recalled the dean of the law school telling the newly matriculated women that they were taking spots in the class that would have otherwise gone to men. Justice Ginsburg went on to become the first woman to join the prestigious Harvard Law Review, before leaving Harvard to complete her degree at Columbia University.
In 1972, the same year Justice Ginsburg became the first woman to become a tenured professor at Columbia, she also joined the American Civil Liberties Union as the founding director of the Women’s Rights Project. Over eight years with the ACLU, Justice Ginsburg contributed to 34 Supreme Court cases. She argued before the court in six of those cases, winning five of them.
As a former litigator for the national ACLU and current executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, I consider it an honor to continue the fight for civil liberties and equal rights that is Justice Ginsburg’s ACLU legacy, work that would not be possible without Justice Ginsburg paving the way.
In cases that often focused on issues of sex discrimination, Justice Ginsburg built a slow, intentional foundation of legal reasoning over eight years that often relied on showing the court how men could also fall victim to sex discrimination, a strategy that serves as a cornerstone in discrimination cases to this very day. So while Justice Ginsburg voted to affirm rights like that of marriage equality and to end discrimination against people in LGBTQ communities in her time on the court, it was her early work for the ACLU that created the precedent to make these arguments in the first place.
On the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg remained a champion of ending discrimination, not just on the basis of sex, but also ending discrimination against those with disabilities, supporting marriage equality, and dissenting sharply on rolling back the Voting Rights Act. But decades after Justice Ginsburg’s work on the Women’s Rights Project, the issue of sex discrimination remained a salient legal battle. In 2006, when the court ruled against Lilly Ledbetter, a woman who sued because she was making less than her male colleagues doing similar work, Justice Ginsburg broke with tradition to read her dissent aloud from the bench, pointedly noting that “the court does not comprehend … the insidious way that women can be victims to discrimination.” Eventually, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law. (Even still, much work remains in Pennsylvania to realize equal pay — women in Pennsylvania won’t reach equal pay until 2072, according to the Women’s Law Project and based on current wage trends.)
In the days since Justice Ginsburg’s passing, there has been a growing conversation about the best way to honor her legacy. In these difficult and uncertain times, her loss packs a devastating punch to those who value civil liberties and the dignity of all people. It can be tempting in these moments to slip into hopelessness. But honoring Justice Ginsburg’s legacy means forging ahead with renewed vigor in the fight to realize the fundamental promise of our nation: liberty and justice for all.
Even as we mourn her passing, we must honor Justice Ginsburg’s legacy by continuing the difficult work of making our nation more just and equitable for all. We must push aside feelings of hopelessness and fear and instead take time every day to ground ourselves in who we are fighting for and why we continue that fight, even in the most difficult times. That means redoubling our commitment to the work that Justice Ginsburg devoted her life to, even in the face of what will likely be a more conservative court.
Civil rights are not given — they are won through often difficult work. Justice Ginsburg knew this. As we continue difficult, crucial work at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we must also remember that dark as these times may get, light will always follow. That is Justice Ginsburg’s legacy that we carry forward: the wisdom and fortitude to keep going in the fight for liberty, justice, and equality for all.
Reggie Shuford is the executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.