In her 87 and a half years, Ruth Bader Ginsburg left a significant mark on law, on feminism, and, late in her life, on pop culture. She also left a significant mark on everyday life in America, helping broaden the sorts of families people are able to make and the sorts of jobs they’re able to take. Her legacy is, in a way, the lives that countless Americans are able to live today.
Ginsburg achieved the status of celebrity as a Supreme Court justice, and during her tenure she cast votes in support of Americans’ ability to get an abortion and to marry someone of the same sex. But her legal legacy can be traced back to her work as a litigator with the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s, when she and others won a string of groundbreaking sex-discrimination cases challenging laws that governed quotidian parts of American life and now seem medieval.
Those laws implied a narrow view of gender roles within families. “At the time RBG was arguing, laws that made explicit gender distinctions were common. Widows get this; widowers don’t. Wives get this; husbands don’t,” Kathryn Stanchi, a law professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, wrote to me in an email.
Ginsburg successfully advocated in court for, among others, a father who was denied Social Security survivors benefits after the death of his wife, because the law dictated that widows were eligible but widowers were not; a woman in the Air Force whose husband was denied a spousal allowance that military wives were automatically entitled to; and an unmarried man who was denied a tax deduction for the expense of hiring a caregiver for his elderly mother, since that deduction was reserved for women, divorced men, and men whose wife was incapacitated or deceased. The laws in question didn’t account for people in those circumstances; now, because of Ginsburg, they do.