During her ACLU decade, Ginsburg took part in 34 cases before the United States Supreme Court, winning five of the six cases she argued directly before the Court either as lead or co-counsel. She charted a litigation strategy focused on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal treatment under the law. Until the 1970s, this Amendment had rarely been recognized by courts as relevant to women’s claim to equality (although the ACLU had pioneered its use in race discrimination cases as far back as the 1930’s). In the words of Aryeh Neier, former Executive Director of the ACLU, who was responsible for hiring Ginsburg, ‘There never was another circumstance in my tenure at the ACLU when there was as clearly planned a litigation strategy as Ginsburg implemented in the women’s rights field.’
Ginsburg’s first case on behalf of the ACLU heard by the Supreme Court, Reed v. Reed, challenged an Idaho statute that automatically gave preference to men for appointment as administrator of a deceased person’s estate. In this 1971 landmark ruling, the Supreme Court for the first time held that a law categorically providing for differential treatment of men and women violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The next term, in Frontiero v. Richardson, the Court invalidated an Air Force policy providing automatic dependents’ benefits to wives of service members but requiring proof of ‘actual dependency’ for husbands of female service members seeking benefits.
Ginsburg continued to win cases challenging policies that were based on assumptions about men’s and women’s different roles in the family. Her cases demonstrated how gender discrimination itself was the problem and that a victim could be male or female; using men in the dependent spouse category as plaintiffs was an effective way to challenge prevailing gender stereotypes.
Throughout the 1970s, Ginsburg and her growing legal team successfully challenged laws that treated women as second-class citizens. Laws were rewritten and newly interpreted, so as to establish women’s right to full equality with men at work, in the home, and in every sphere of life. Ginsburg’s work, and that of other feminist lawyers during this decade, resulted in extraordinary changes in women’s legal status in the United States.
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