In January 1975, I was preparing to graduate from William Jewell and join the real world. I was terrified. I had no idea what to do with my English degree. I had not finished my student teaching because I had hated it so much. I had failed to finish Hallmark’s writing test because I felt that I was not good enough. I was weighing my options and not liking any of them. So I postponed graduation, deciding to take another year of classes focusing on music. Maybe that would clarify my future.
Meanwhile, as I floundered, another woman with perspicuity and purpose was changing how society viewed gender roles – all of them. She convinced eight people that the government cannot discriminate against anyone based on gender when it comes to Social Security benefits – and she opened a path for me that I knew nothing about at the time.
In January 1975, Ruth Bader Ginsberg argued Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 US 636 (1975), in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Wiesenfeld was a father whose wife had died in childbirth. During their marriage, he had taken the role of househusband, and she had taken the role of the working spouse. During her career, she, just like everyone else, had contributed to Social Security.
After her death, Mr. Wiesenfeld applied for Social Security benefits for surviving spouses and children, as my friend would some 20 years later when her husband died at age 49. Unlike my female friend, however, Mr. Wiesenfeld was denied those benefits. He could receive the benefits for his son, but he could not receive what Social Security called “Mother’s benefits.”
Ms. Ginsberg argued that such a determination was unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment: “No person . . . shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law . . .” Mr. Wiesenfeld was being deprived of property to which he was entitled – Social Security for surviving spouses. But, Ginsberg argued, MRS. Wiesenfeld, though deceased, was also being deprived of property: She had paid into the system, and her contributions weren’t being paid out as they would have been had the surviving spouse been a woman. In fact, Ginsberg said, the discrimination included the infant. He was being denied the care of his parent, who had to leave him to go to work, although their family plan had been for the father to be the caregiver for their son.
She won 8-0 (Justice Douglas didn’t participate).
Ginsberg’s legal education began at Harvard, where she was one of nine women in a class of 500 and the first woman selected for law review. Eventually, Ms. Ginsberg graduated number one in her class from Columbia University’s law school – and no one would hire her (www.oyez.org/justices/ruth_bader_ginsburg). The rest, as they say, is history.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg opened doors for women – and men – in her storied career as a lawyer, and she continued her excellence as a Federal judge. Now, of course, she sits on the U.S. Supreme Court, and is known as the “Notorious RBG.”
And guess what? I saw her. Last Tuesday, I was one of 13,000 people who crowded the Verizon Arena in Little Rock and applauded a tiny woman – a giant in the law who blazed a trail through a society that viewed women as second-class citizens, unable to access a variety of opportunities that were afforded men. I was one of the women navigating that trail. In 1978, I was one in the largest class of women at UMKC’s law school at that time – 55 women in a class of 165.
At the time, I had no idea that Ruth Bader Ginsberg helped set a floundering, confused me on a journey that has traversed places I had no idea I would be able to go. As I listened to her speak, I marveled at the changes she has engendered over the span of her career. And I marveled at the woman who, at age 86, and who had completed her last radiation treatment for cancer a mere 11 days prior to her appearance, has changed the way we think. As a woman who has benefited from her groundbreaking work, I am grateful.