Let’s honor justices Ginsburg and O’Connor by passing the ERA

ERA amendment

A woman hold up a sign as members of Congress and representatives of women’s groups hold a rally to mark the 40th anniversary of congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) outside the U.S. Capitol on March 22, 2012. Photo by Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

With Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the world has lost a champion for women and equality whose strong voice on workers’ rights, civil rights and the separation of church and state brought forth much-needed reform to build a more fair and just society. 

Ginsburg’s legal career was intertwined with that of the only woman to precede her as a Supreme Court justice, Arizona’s own Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. 

One great way to honor the inseparable and indispensable legacies of both women would be to vote to ratify the ERA in Arizona next legislative session.

O'Connor Ginsburg
The four women who have served on the Supreme Court of the United States. From left to right: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (Ret.), Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Justice Elena Kagan in the Justices’ Conference Room, prior to Justice Kagan’s Investiture Ceremony on October 1, 2010. Photo by U.S. Supreme Court

Long before her almost 30-year service on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg had built an impressive legal legacy. After attending Harvard Law, one of only nine women admitted, and eventually graduating first in her class from Columbia Law, she faced a shocking wall of discrimination when seeking employment as a lawyer. 

This was nearly identical to the fate O’Connor, her future colleague on the Supreme Court, had also faced after her graduation from Stanford Law School almost a decade earlier. There were no laws to protect these brilliant and exceedingly qualified women from gender discrimination. 

Now, thanks in large part to Ginsburg’s advocacy and litigation, there are.

With no job in a law firm to turn to, Ginsburg taught at Rutgers and Columbia and founded and directed the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, where she argued six gender equality cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning five. These landmark victories moved gender equality forward by expanding civil rights laws and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection to include gender. 

In her first case, Reed v. Reed, she overturned a law that favored men over women in estate law. Next, she struck down laws offering different benefits to women vs men in military compensation and Social Security.

Ginsberg strategically flipped the perspective and conversation in these two cases by representing men who had been adversely affected by the laws. These victories set in motion a series of wins that made laws favoring men over women in tax, finance, family and other types of law as unconstitutional.

“Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you,” Ginsburg proffered. She definitely lived by that advice. Her work ushered in a whole new era of fresh perspective and updated expectations of women’s place in society and their capabilities. These laws also formed the fabric for a majority opinion written by O’Connor, prior to Ginsburg’s appointment to the court, that ordered an all-female nursing school to admit men.

O’Connor took a different path — including serving as a state senator from what is now Legislative District 28. She was the first woman in the country to serve as a majority leader for any legislative body and championed the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment as a state senator. She then ran for and won a seat as a judge for the Maricopa County Superior Court before being elevated to the Arizona State Court of Appeals and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983.  

She once said, “As women achieve power, the barriers will fall. As society sees what women can do — as women see what women can do — there will be more women out there doing things, and we’ll all be better off for it.”

After serving more than 10 years as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, President Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, just the second woman to join the high court. In 1996, she proudly announced a huge win for gender equality, a case won by a 7-1 vote before the Supreme Court, which found a government-supported school’s all-male admissions policy unconstitutional. In her opinion, she cited O’Connor’s opinion from the nursing school case a dozen years prior.

It is because of women like Ginsburg and O’Connor, and the strong, intelligent, and inspirational women in my own life, that I strongly support ratification of the ERA (as does O’Connor). 

What a fitting tribute it would be to both of these path-breaking women if we were to vote to ratify the ERA in our next legislative session.

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Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley
Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley

Aaron Lieberman is a Democrat from District 28, which includes Paradise Valley and portions of north-central Phoenix. He serves on the Appropriations and Education committees in the Arizona House of Representatives.