This month ACLU of Oregon celebrates the anniversary of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s appointment to the United States Supreme Court while noting with sadness the passing of Betty Roberts, the first woman to be appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court. These two remarkable women have contributed to the betterment of our Nation and State by speaking out for those who have been and are currently being denied basic civil rights.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg was sworn into the United States Supreme Court on August 10th, 1994, becoming the second woman ever to achieve such a position. A true pioneer for the rights of women, she argued a remarkable six cases (winning five) before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976. A fact that many people don’t know about Justice Ginsberg is that she was an ACLU attorney during this period of great achievement and helped found the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project (WRP). Armed with the words of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, Ginsberg fought to dissolve the artificial barriers of gender by tackling a series of serious gender discrimination issues. She served as ACLU general counsel from 1973-1980, and was on the National ACLU Board of Directors from 1974-1980.
Among the groundbreaking cases Ginsberg took on during her time with the ACLU was Reed v. Reed, in which the Supreme Court extended the Constitution’s Equal Protection guarantee to women for the first time ever. Ginsberg was determined to change the type of judicial scrutiny that was applied to gender discrimination cases under the Equal Protection Clause. Successfully achieving heightened scrutiny for gender discrimination cases represents one of the greatest triumphs for Ginsberg during her time with the Women’s Rights Project. Heightened scrutiny requires that a law which has the effect of discrimination based on gender cannot be held constitutional if it can’t be shown that the discrimination serves an important government or public objective. In other words, there better be a good reason for the discrimination for it to even be considered constitutional. Because of her diligence in establishing heightened scrutiny as a required legal standard, Ginsberg was able to successfully argue cases like Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, in which she challenged a gender-based provision in the Social Security Act. This provision was based on the archaic idea that a wife and mother would be left more destitute than a father if one of them were to die. Female wage earners, who were required to pay the same social security taxes as a male wage earner, were given less protection for their survivors than was provided for male wage earners. This meant that if the mother in a family passed away, the father wouldn’t receive as many family benefits--leaving her family more vulnerable financially and the taxes she paid to social security rendered less important. Ginsberg and other WRP leaders were instrumental in the passage of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act as well. With the creation of the End Discrimination Against Pregnant Workers Coalition they were able to focus on protecting the rights of pregnant working women as well as non-pregnant working women. The Reproductive Freedom Project (RFP) also emerged during Ginsberg’s time with the ACLU. The RFP was created due to the growing number of forced sterilization cases in the 1970’s. Women were being coerced into undergoing sterilization in order to keep their jobs and welfare benefits. It was these kinds of egregious attacks against women’s rights that the WRP was created to defend against. Read more about the ACLU RFP.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg went on to be appointed by the U.S court of appeals by Carter in 1980 and then was nominated by Clinton for the position of Associate Justice on the U.S Supreme Court in 1993, which is where she continues to this day to break the gender barriers women still face. Her creation, the Women’s Rights Project will continue to protect the freedoms granted to women in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause for decades to come. Read more about the ACLU WRP.
Oregon was privileged to have its very own women’s rights crusader--Oregon Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts. In 1982 she became the first woman to be appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court. Justice Roberts died in June of this year at the age of 88. She broke barriers, like Ginsberg, by leading the way in the House of Representatives as the first woman House Majority Leader in Oregon, and in the Senate serving as State Senator. While in the legislature, she helped pass the Oregon state ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and was key to the passage of Oregon’s first legalized right to abortion bill. Justice Roberts authored the landmark decision in Hewitt v. SAIF which established that men and women have equal rights under the Oregon Constitution. She also worked to end the ever-growing discrimination against Oregon’s LGBT population. Justice Roberts was awarded the ACLU of Oregon’s McNaughton Civil Liberties Award in 2004 for her monumental contributions to ensure the preservation of civil liberties and the betterment of human rights. A true defender of civil liberties--she made Oregon a better place to live.