Pathmarking The Way: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Lifelong Fight For Gender Equality Early in her career, the Supreme Court justice argued cases that expanded rights for women and men.

Pathmarking The Way: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Lifelong Fight For Gender Equality

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The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is being remembered for her groundbreaking work that vastly expanded rights for women. NPR's Melissa Block reports on Ginsburg's strategy in fighting gender discrimination.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: You'll note that we said gender discrimination there, not sex discrimination. That's the term Ginsburg preferred, going back to her early days as a civil rights lawyer arguing cases before the Supreme Court. Decades later, she told this story about her linguistic choice.


RUTH BADER GINSBURG: And I owe it all to my secretary at Columbia Law School who said, I'm typing these briefs and articles for you, and there's the word sex, sex, sex on every page.


BLOCK: As that wise secretary warned Ginsburg...


GINSBURG: Don't you know that those nine men to whom you are arguing, when they hear that word, their first association is not what you want them to be thinking about?

KATHLEEN PERATIS: She was a great performer.

BLOCK: Kathleen Peratis worked closely with Ginsburg at the American Civil Liberties Union in the '70s fighting gender discrimination cases.

PERATIS: She really knew how to create the story and sell the story.

BLOCK: That story, Ginsburg told, was rooted in her own experience. After law school, no firm would hire her, even though she graduated at the top of her class. As a professor, she was paid less than her male colleagues. She hid a pregnancy under baggy clothes so she wouldn't lose a teaching job. Peratis explains, as a litigator, Ginsburg took discriminatory laws one by one and methodically eviscerated them.

PERATIS: She decided that the way to approach the overall problem was to show that men and women were harmed by what she called putting them in pigeonholes.

BLOCK: So a law excluding women from jury service, Ginsburg fought that before the Supreme Court and won. Giving Social Security survivor benefits to a widow but not a widower, she won that fight, too. She argued six discrimination cases before the court and won five.

SUSAN DELLER ROSS: She achieved a 180-degree turn in the court's approach to sex discrimination cases.

BLOCK: Susan Deller Ross was another colleague of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the '70s with the ACLU's Women's Rights Project.

ROSS: The Supreme Court, in 100 years of having an equal protection clause in our 14th Amendment, had never ruled that women have the same rights as men.

BLOCK: Ginsburg's push for gender equality was cemented when she joined the Supreme Court herself. In 1996, she wrote the landmark decision that struck down the male-only admission policy at the Virginia Military Institute.

LISA BEATTIE FRELINGHUYSEN: For her, I think this case was a slam dunk.

BLOCK: A slam dunk because the admission policy was an obvious violation of the Constitution, says Lisa Beattie Frelinghuysen. She worked on that VMI case as a law clerk for Justice Ginsburg. Years later, Frelinghuysen accompanied Ginsburg to VMI, where they met some of the young women cadets.

FRELINGHUYSEN: They were just shining. Several of them thanked the justice for helping them to achieve their dreams.

BLOCK: Justice Ginsburg had a signature word she sprinkled liberally through her opinions.

AMANDA TYLER: She loved the word pathmarking.

BLOCK: Pathmarking, says former Ginsburg law clerk Amanda Tyler, as in a pathmarking decision, one that shows others the way.

TYLER: You see in all the cases involving gender discrimination a continuing fight on her part to make her colleagues understand how these decisions will affect the lived experiences of all people in this country.

BLOCK: As the court grew more conservative, Justice Ginsburg found herself more frequently in dissent. Former clerk Kate Andrias worked with Ginsburg on her dissent in a case involving an abortion procedure used later in pregnancy.

KATE ANDRIAS: The majority's opinion contained a lot of language about women not knowing what was best for them and making decisions that they then would regret. And she showed how stereotypes about women were underlying the opinion and how they reflected really ancient and outdated conceptions of women's role in society.

BLOCK: All of Ginsburg's colleagues I spoke with fear that with her gone from the court, reproductive rights are most at risk. Looking ahead, Kate Andrias thinks about her two young daughters who idolize Justice Ginsburg.

ANDRIAS: I just hope that, you know, that their future is one where they can continue to count on women being considered equal citizens in this country, as Justice Ginsburg worked so hard to achieve.

BLOCK: All the more reason, Andrias says, for them all to work to continue her legacy.

Melissa Block, NPR News.

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