Look back five decades, and the world was a different place.
Our grandmothers struggled to open bank accounts without male co-signers. They didn’t have an easy time getting mortgages or credit cards on their own, either.
So, though we may have a long way to go toward gender equality, we also have a lot to be thankful for.
And much of our gratitude can go to one person; to a single woman who chose to make a difference. That woman, of course, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
When Ginsburg died last week, the world lost a modern-day hero: a woman who helped all Americans gain greater equality and expanded financial freedom. Here’s a little taste of why she deserves to be remembered.
The life and legend of RBG
After growing up in Brooklyn, Ginsburg attended both Harvard and Columbia Law Schools, where she was one of few female students.
Despite graduating at the top of her class, Ginsburg missed out on many opportunities simply because of her gender. These experiences sharpened her devotion to feminism, and to ensuring everyone had equal rights under the law.
During the 1970s, Ginsburg helped launch the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and argued several gender discrimination cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1980, she left the ACLU to become a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals.
More than a decade later, in 1993, Ginsburg became the second woman nominated to our nation’s highest court. She served as a Supreme Court justice for 27 years, cementing her legacy as a women’s rights advocate and a feminist pop culture icon.
How RBG enabled financial freedom for all
Besides her tiny stature, killer workout, and rap-inspired nickname, what will RBG be remembered for? Her tireless fight for equality: for men, women, LGBTQ+ people, everyone.
“Ruth Ginsburg was as responsible as any one person for legal advances that women made under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution,” said Marcia Greenberger, then co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, back in 1993. “Doors of opportunity have been opened that have benefited not only the women themselves but their families.”
When it comes to money and equality, here are three ways Ginsburg left a lasting impression:
1. She paved the way for female financial independence
As recently as the early ‘70s, women were often denied access to bank accounts, credit cards, and mortgages unless they had a male cosigner. Can you even imagine that?
According to legal historians, RBG’s years of equal protection litigation “paved the way” for the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, which banned such discriminatory practices. (We ladies can manage our own money, thank you very much!)
2. She opened the door for working women
Back in the day, employers could refuse to hire you — or outright fire you — if you were pregnant or planning to get pregnant.
But, thanks to Ginsburg and her colleagues at the ACLU, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in 1978. Since then, it’s been illegal for employers to treat you differently, bump or no bump. As if that weren’t enough, Ginsburg’s work was also fundamental to the fight for equal pay.
In The Atlantic, one law professor put it succinctly: “[RBG]’s not responsible for every single woman individually deciding to go get a job, but she did cultivate the conditions by which, if you chose to do so, you have full access to the benefits that your employment provided.”
3. She gave men and women a better shot at financial equality
Because RBG was a staunch feminist, it might surprise you to learn that she represented men in many of her famous cases — but it was all part of her savvy strategy for getting nine male Supreme Court justices to care about gender equality.
In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), for example, Ginsburg argued against a law stating that only wives could get Social Security survivor benefits. She represented a widower who wanted to stay home to raise his son. Not only did she win that case, but, decades later, she officiated the son’s wedding!
Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, one reporter wrote at the time, “represented a major victory for supporters of equal rights for women, with the high court taking its strongest stand to date against discrimination based on sex.”
Like many of Ginsburg’s cases, it was a victory for men — and for women. It was a victory for people who wanted to live the life they chose, no matter their gender.
Now that RBG is gone, we can honor her memory by carrying on her legacy: by striving to make a difference for ourselves and for others.
Whether you’re doing so on an individual level — fighting to, say, become more financially secure — or on a grander scale — trying to improve the future of your community or country — always keep this advice from RBG in the back of your mind: “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”