We live in a world that gives good lip service to the equality of the sexes, but if you scratch the surface it’s clear that there’s far more work to be done.
The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has opened up a wave of emotion among women in this country, as they reflect on how far we have come since Justice Ginsburg was asked in the 1950s by the dean of Harvard Law School why she was taking a seat in class that could have gone to a man.
But it was equally jarring to realize how far women have left to go when we heard that Justice Ginsburg was the first woman ever to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol in September of this year.
Some of the successes of the past 70 years have been striking. Female lawyers can be found everywhere decisions are being made. Women have proven their mettle in combat, in fire companies and on construction sites and the factory floor in ways they could not have imagined just a few short decades ago.
This was helped greatly by the landmark 1996 Supreme Court case in which Justice Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion striking down the Virginia Military Institute’s refusal to allow female cadets, on the grounds that schools funded by taxpayer dollars could not discriminate on the basis of sex.
Few women today could imagine that, before the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, women needed their husbands to act as cosigners on mortgages, car loans and credit cards. Justice Ginsburg’s work as a young lawyer helped pave the way for that federal law decades before she was seated on the Supreme Court.
But it was equality under the law that Justice Ginsburg sought, not simply the elevation of women. In the 1970s, she regularly represented men who were acting as caregivers for their parents and children but were denied rights by federal agencies including Social Security and the IRS. The right to care for your loved ones, she argued, should be granted equally to both men and women.
But it is in their role as caregivers where women still find themselves stuck, well into the 21st Century.
Giving birth and raising children still puts women, both married and unmarried, well behind their male counterparts in the workplace, even at the most forward-thinking American companies.
The pandemic has made that painfully clear, as employees without children at tech companies protested when companies offered more flex time to parents juggling work and their children’s virtual learning.
The American workplace does not value caring for families, and this burden continues to fall primarily to women.
The battle for wage equality is part of the fix for this, but it is far from won. As of this year, women in the U.S. make, on average, 82 cents for every dollar a man earns for the same number of hours of work. African American women make just 62 cents for every dollar a man earns, and Latina women earn just 54 cents for every dollar earned by a man.
As striking as those statistics are, they cannot tell the full story. Twenty-five percent of children in the United States are being raised by a single parent, and 80 percent of those parents are women. Not only do women earn less, but they must stretch their dollars far further to support their children.
What’s good for caregivers is good for everyone, and indeed, caregiving played a role in much of Justice Ginsburg’s work.
Her decision to represent Charles Moritz, a Colorado man who was denied a tax deduction for seeking care for his aging mother, was the focus of the 2018 film “On the Basis of Sex” for a reason. Caregiving matters as much as the corporate boardroom, and there’s still no better way to show that it matters than to show that it can be done by a man.
When asked by her biographers how she wanted to be remembered, Justice Ginsburg said “just as someone who did whatever she could, with whatever limited talent she had, to move society along in the direction I would like it to be for my children and grandchildren.”
It is those who nurture us who set the moral compass of our nation. Regardless of what becomes of Justice Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court, each of us, men and women, can take up that mantle by being actively engaged in caregiving for our families and communities, helping to build a more equitable world each and every day.