On Friday, September 18, 2020, the U.S. lost a national treasure with the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Bader Ginsburg served on the high court since 1993 when she was confirmed by a 96-3 vote in the U.S. Senate. During her 27 years on the court, Justice Bader Ginsburg became known for her scathing dissents and support for equal rights.
Prior to becoming a Supreme Court justice, Bader Ginsburg taught law at Rutgers and Columbia, becoming the first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School. She also worked closely with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), including as founding director of the organization’s Women’s Rights Project. Despite graduating at the top of her class and making law review at two Ivy League institutions, she had difficulty finding a job with a New York law firm, because they did not want to hire a woman.
It is through her work with the ACLU that she authored the legal brief in Reed v. Reed (1971). In this document submitted to the Supreme Court, she argued that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law, applies to gender-based discrimination (the amendment was ratified during Reconstruction to extend rights to formerly enslaved individuals).
This precedent has been used to end any practice that treats people differently due to their gender. For example, refusing to hire a qualified woman for a “traditionally male” job because of her gender was no longer allowed. Similarly, denying a widowed husband and father caretaker tax benefits was also barred; in this case, the benefit had only applied to women and not men since earning an income, not family caretaking, was a man’s “role.” Not only did this rule discriminate against the husband and father, it also relegated his deceased wife’s income and contributions to Social Security to second-class status.
More recently, similar arguments have been used to establish that barring sex discrimination in the workplace also protects LGBT (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender) workers. However, the Trump administration has been trying to remove these protections against discrimination, for example in healthcare.
So why are we talking about Ruth Bader Ginsburg on an economics blog?
The anti-discrimination work that was the hallmark of RBG’s career prior to entering the judicial branch was pivotal in expanding economic opportunity. While it was technically illegal to discriminate against women in the hiring process after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sex-based discrimination remained rampant in the U.S. economy, workforce, and society.
For example, it wasn’t until the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 that credit companies were barred from refusing to issue credit to a woman without a male co-signer. In other words, a woman could not get a credit card or other types of loans unless she had a man to vouch for her. Access to credit and/or a good credit score is important for financial stability and independence, securing a place to live (through a lease or a mortgage), passing a pre-employment credit check, obtaining resources to start or grow a business, and investing in education.
It was also in 1974 that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was amended to include sex as a protected category. Prior to this time, landlords or real estate agents could deny a woman an apartment or house, though she could also be limited in access to a mortgage, simply because of her gender. In addition to allowing someone to live independently, owning a home can also be a major source of wealth accumulation and financial security. Limited access to housing can also impact employment opportunities, since living far from a worksite hinders opportunity. Furthermore, not having a permanent address can harm an employment application.
Furthermore, it wasn’t until the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in 1978 that discrimination against pregnant employees was considered sex-based discrimination and was therefore forbidden; before then, an employee could be fired for being pregnant. This limited women’s access and ability to participate in the workforce. Though pregnancy discrimination still exists in the U.S., the proportion of women working during their pregnancies has increased.
Other than being the right thing and an effort to create a more perfect union, why does Justice Ginsburg’s legacy matter?
Research has shown that more diverse workplaces support more creative innovation and problem solving, higher employee satisfaction, and increased productivity. Research has also shown that nearly all of the gains in household income for U.S. families from 1970-2014 are due to women’s increased labor force participation. Furthermore, a study published in April 2016 estimated that, just for the period from 2016 to 2025, the U.S. economy could increase by $2.1 trillion if women gained parity in the workforce. Though there have been significant gains over the past 50 years, we as a society clearly still have a lot of work to do, particularly for women of color and those who do not identify with the gender binary.
 Two caveats before we dive in: this blog post will be using the gender binary in explanations. However, gender is a social construct that exists on a spectrum. Additionally, while Justice Ginsburg’s contributions to women’s rights in the workplace cannot be understated, it is important to note that many women, particularly Black women, have been participating in the labor force for much longer due to racist societal norms that viewed Black women as “workers” after slavery was outlawed.