Over two months ago, a dark cloud fell upon America, possibly unpicking the stitching of its social fabric for at least the next generation. On the 18th September 2020, Supreme Court Justice of 27 years, Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away in Washington DC after five bouts of cancer, during which she never missed a day on the bench. This was not just a stuffy old Judge who sat in court and occasionally banged her gavel – this was a legendary woman who’d fought through thick and thin for gender equality in the USA and won. At least so she’d thought, but with her death coming just before the Presidential election on November 3rd, Republican Donald Trump had the power to appoint a new replacement justice, and his pick – Amy Coney Barrett - could quite easily help to reverse the lifetime of progress achieved by the notorious RBG.
In the United States, the government is made up of three almost equal parts: the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court. Therefore, the Supreme Court (traditionally made up of nine justices who are appointed by the president and voted on by congress for a lifetime position) has extreme power over cases that are affected by the constitution, such as gun reform (which is protected by the 2nd amendment), protection of women’s rights, immigration and equality for the LGBTQ community. RBG defended these important issues, but her replacement - Republican Amy Coney Barrett - disagrees with many of them.
Before being appointed by Bill Clinton to the Supreme Court in 1993, Ginsburg had fought for gender equality her whole life. She was one of only nine women out of five hundred in her class at Harvard but didn’t let it stop her graduating joint first from Columbia Law School. She famously said in an interview that she had three things that often counted against her in the strongly patriarchal law institutions of the mid 20th century: ‘I’m Jewish, a woman and a mother’. This attitude was particularly evident when she was asked by the Harvard Dean to justify why she was taking a man’s place in the class and when she struggled to find a job in New York despite graduating top first in her class. This gave her the drive to co-found the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and to become their general counsel, winning five out of six gender discrimination cases in front of the Supreme Court which catapulted her towards being regarded as a feminist icon.
Despite starting as a moderate judge, RBG became increasingly left-wing as the court swung to the right thanks to the balance of judges tipping in Republican favour in recent years. In her final years, she was well-known for being the most liberal judge in the highest court of the land. The fact that American politics is swinging further to the right could reverse progress made by the
feminist movement of the 70s that icons such as Gloria Steinman and Betty Friedan fought so hard for. This is more true than ever due to the recent approval of Conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett by a majority vote in the Senate - the upper house of Congress, which holds ultra-conservative attitudes regarding women’s rights. Ironically, the work of RBG paved the way for Barrett to enter the legal profession and take a seat at the highest court in the land. But it is unlikely that RBG’s legacy will be allowed to continue under ACB as Barrett would have to actively work to keep it alive, and the worry for many Americans is that not only will she not do that, she’ll put her all into doing the opposite.
ACB’s history as a Court of Appeal Judge in Chicago and supporter of Trump’s far-right policies are inherently anti-feminist and suggest she has no desire to fight for women, especially those from less advantaged demographics. She ruled against environmental protections (environmental degradation disproportionately affects women), consumer protection, and sexual assault cases, and her opinions on healthcare and privileged upbringings are equally regressive. While ACB may be a working mother, that doesn’t mean she is the ‘modern woman’. She is lucky enough to be able to afford childcare and has a supportive family around her, which is not the case for 40% of American mothers who, in a 2018 survey, reported the negative effects that struggling with childcare had on their careers. These women are now more anxious than ever that with ACB replacing RBG, their ability to have equal access to career opportunities will be hampered further.
As a result of Joe Biden winning the Presidential election and Kamala Harris became the first female Vice President-elect (the most senior position a woman will have ever held in the US), these concerns seem to be less urgent. But when you look deeper, into the dark, mahogany furnished rooms of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is gone, and with her, possibly many women’s rights in the so-called ‘greatest country in the world’.
This article was written by Ellie Newsome for the Student Newspaper