By Sarah GONNORD, EEB4 S6 ENA
In light of March being Women’s History Month, I wish to shed light on women who helped shape the society we live in today. Upon hearing the words ‘Women’s History’, we tend to think of the brave women like the Suffragettes fighting to create a more equal society by taking to the streets. But we often forget the women who defended this cause behind closed doors, like the women who changed the law in order to accommodate this shifting society.
Dubbed as the ‘Notorious RBG’, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was only recognized for her work contributing to equality when she was in her eighties, serving as a Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States.
Throughout her career, Ruth Bader Ginsburg contributed to creating many equality laws for women and men. In her first cases before court, she represented men harmed by discriminatory laws attributing financial advantages to widows but not to widowers. She contributed to pregnancy discrimination cases where women were forced to choose between their jobs and pregnancy. She also took a winning gender discrimination case to the Supreme Court; states had made jury service optional for women but not for men. RBG stated that this implied that women were “the centre of home and family life, so they could be spared from performing a prime obligation of citizenship”. The case won, making jury service obligatory for women.
During her time as the second woman serving on the Supreme Court, RBG wrote a majority opinion in the case United States v Virginia which led to a law requiring state-held military schools to admit women. She also helped advance equal pay for women in the case Ledbetter v Goodyear (2007), in which Lily Ledbetter went to the Supreme Court years after discovering her male co-workers made fifteen thousand more dollars than she did. The Supreme court did not vote in her favour, arguing she had presented the case too late. However, RBG, then the only woman sitting on the bench, made a powerful oral dissent in Ledbetter’s favour, making it clear she did not agree with the court’s decision. A year later, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law. From then on RBG’s dissents became frequent and famous after her dissent defending the Voting Rights Act in Shelby county v Holder and her dissent defending access to contraception in a case where the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could refuse contraceptive coverage to women based on the employer’s religious belief.
However, Ruth Bader Ginsburg isn’t the only woman who helped to create a more equal law.
For example, Simone Veil was also engaged in creating many equality laws in France. Working as a magistrate in the French ministry of justice, she helped implement laws improving women’s prison conditions. Moving on to become the director of civil affairs, she contributed to guaranteeing the right to dual parental control in family legal matters and gave women the right to adopt. In 1974, Simone Veil became the Minister of Health, contributing to two major laws that expanded healthcare for women, thefirst giving better access to contraception and the second legalizing abortion in France. She then became the first woman to hold the position of President of the European Parliament, paving the way for others to follow.
There are countless other women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simone Veil around the world who have dedicated their work to create equal opportunities for everyone. Society evolves and changes on its own. But the law allows this change to be accepted. Without these women, society would not have been able to progress as much as it has today since outdated laws would have restrained it from doing so. A hundred years ago, women were just starting to practice the legal profession and to obtain their right to vote. Today, women make up a third of the legal profession in the world and the majority of women have the right to vote. Yet progress is still needed.
However, the rights women have today are the product of the work of women like RBG and Simone Veil. In creating equal opportunities through the law, they have massively contributed to creating a society where Women’s History month is something that is celebrated and recognised.
Throughout their lives, these women were standing on the shoulders of the women who came before them. And we stand on theirs.
Book – Notorious RBG : the life and times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
Simone Veil : http://www.theheroinecollective.com/simone-veil/