Ginsburg: As Gay Rights Gain Traction, SCOTUS Record on Women Worsens

Why do civil rights come in fits and starts?


From 2006 to 2009, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 81, was the sole woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. Nominated in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, she now presides alongside Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Earlier this month, in speaking to a law school, Justice Ginsburg noted the court’s increasing embrace of gay rights.

This is not to say that gay and lesbians have secured equal protections in the eyes of the law. But comparatively, Justice Ginsburg said that the court still wrestles with “the ability of women to decide for themselves what their destiny will be.”

Though history is never made as linearly as we learn it in the classroom, it sometimes seems like social justice movements happen one at a time instead of concurrently. Despite this, each group’s push toward equality carries the same fundamental objective: To expand the idea of what it means to be “American.”

The gay rights movement has made considerable ground in ways probably unfathomable as little as 20 years ago. And when a so-called minority community has been made “more equal” the nation pats itself on the back for reaching a new threshold of “tolerance,” resigned that there is no more work to be done.

“Glad that’s over,” the country sighs. But the pendulum swings again.

And this is perhaps why Justice Ginsburg sees a such a slowed pace for women’s rights, particularly as the country finally chooses to reconcile some of its awful and discriminatory practices against gays and lesbians. Remember that America’s Puritan roots have always made it difficult for women to be autonomous, especially with regards to their sexuality. Just imagine an America where women were unequivocally given a right to choose, where their sexual choices were un-policed, and where children and families were not seen as “women’s issues” — thus making men more accountable in the process.

What a wonderful world that would be.

Yet even within the Court itself — with its unprecedented female head count — there seems to exist some weird paternalism that silences the female justices themselves. In 2009, Justice Ginsberg was quoted as saying, “I will say something — and I don’t think I’m a confused speaker — and it isn’t until somebody else says it that everyone will focus on the point.” It is difficult expect that the Court would be able to overturn injustices against women when the women actually on the bench are still struggling to be heard.

Though American women are among the world’s most liberated, patriarchy is as American as apple pie. It’s an interesting paradox, exemplified by Justice Ginsburg’s furious dissent (PDF, p. 60) in the so-called Hobby Lobby case, where the Court ruled that private companies could opt to deny birth control coverage to their employees, based on the organization’s beliefs.

With a new generation of women self-identifying as feminists, women’s rights cases gain traction in the news and make pop stars out of the defenders of the so-called weaker sex. It may be a sign that although things are slow-moving in the court system, the public is showing increasing support for progress, despite its fits and starts, and inching the nation closer to becoming a country that reconciles its past to make room for its future — and the way women choose to exist in it.

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