The battle for workplace equity lost one of its fiercest warriors over the weekend.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg — “notorious” Supreme Court Justice and leader in the equal rights fight — passed away on Friday, Sept. 18, at the age of 87.
The Supreme Court announced her passing, which resulted from complications of metastatic cancer of the pancreas.
Having overcome four previous bouts of cancer over the past two decades, Ginsburg fought the disease with the same grace and determination that she fought for women’s rights. In a statement issued on Friday, Supreme Court Justice John Roberts acknowledged the critical place his fellow Justice occupied on the court and as a leader in that fight.
“Our nation has lost a justice of historic stature,” Roberts said. “We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her, a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”
In the course of her 27 years on the highest court in the land, Ginsberg became its most high-profile member, emerging as a feminist icon and becoming known well beyond Washington, D.C. circles as The Notorious R.B.G.
Her iconic status might be best illustrated by the 2007 case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Inc.
That case — which led to the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009 — centered around Lilly Ledbetter’s claims that she was paid significantly less than her male co-workers performing the same job at Goodyear for the better part of two decades.
The Supreme Court ultimately decided against Ledbetter in a 5-4 ruling, finding that her claims were not necessarily without merit, but only that she had failed to file her initial lawsuit in a timely enough manner.
Ginsburg was the only sitting female justice to hear Ledbetter’s case. She famously pointed out the Catch-22 that Ledbetter found herself in, delivering a measured, memorable dissent from the bench.
“Until a pay disparity becomes apparent and sizeable, an employee is unlikely to comprehend her plight and therefore [less likely] to complain about it.
“If you sue only when the pay disparity becomes steady and large enough to enable you to [mount] a winnable case, you will be cut off at the court’s threshold for suing too late,” Ginsburg opined. “And that situation cannot be what Congress intended when Title VII outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin in our nation’s workplaces.”
She directed some strong words at her Supreme Court colleagues as well:
“The court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination,” Ginsburg pointed out, noting that Ledbetter’s salary was 15% to 40% less than every other Goodyear area manager during her tenure there.
Ledbetter’s claim came up short in the end. But Ginsburg helped bring broader attention to the persistent pay imbalances between men and women in the American workplace. And she helped galvanize a movement intended to correct these imbalances, with then-President Barack Obama signing the Fair Pay Act into law two years after the Supreme Court heard Ledbetter’s case.
In the 12 years since that ruling, Ledbetter has spoken frequently about Ginsburg’s role in that legislation coming to fruition — including a recent chat with WorldatWork for our Work in Progress podcast.
(A profile on Lilly Ledbetter, tracing the roots of her claims against Goodyear, her subsequent legal battle and the passage of the Fair Pay Act, will appear in the October issue of #evolve.)
In a 2008 interview for CNN’s “RBG: Beyond Notorious” podcast, Ledbetter told hosts Poppy Harlow and Jeffrey Toobin that she gets “goosebumps and chills today,” just thinking about Ginsburg’s words for her fellow Supreme Court justices, “knowing how fierce she was.”
Upon learning of Ginsburg’s death, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor recalled the type of fierce spirit that was on display during RBG’s dissent in the Ledbetter case, and many of the other attributes that she demonstrated over her nearly three decades on the bench.
“My dear friend and colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an American hero. She spent her life fighting for the equality of all people, and she was a pathbreaking champion of women’s rights,” Sotomayor said in a statement. “She served our Court and our country with consummate dedication, tirelessness, and passion for justice. She has left a legacy few could rival.”
About the Author
Mark McGraw is the manager editor of Workspan.