The Notorious R.B.G—A Reflection From a Ryerson Woman in Law

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By Michelle Takacs

As a feminist icon and legal titan, U.S. Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg was adored by many for her persistent fight against gender inequalities. 

Ginsburg passed away on Sept. 18, as a result of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer. She will be remembered as one of the most prominent female voices of the last few decades . 

As Ginsburg’s death was felt all over the world, the news of her passing was followed by an outpouring of appreciation from countless influential voices and members of Congress.

The democratic vice-presidential candidate, Senator Kamala Harris, commemorated the ‘Notorious R.B.G’ for her ground-breaking influence on women in positions of power.

“…she broke so many barriers. And I know she did it intentionally knowing that people like me could follow.” 

Ginsburg’s influence was also felt among students at Ryerson. When asked about Ginsburg’s impact on women in law, Britney Lamothe, president of the Law and Business Student Association at Ryerson, shared how deeply saddened she was to hear the news of Ginsburg’s passing and how eternally grateful she was “for the doors [Ginsburg] opened and the bar she’s set for women in law across the globe.”

Lamothe describes Ginsburg as a role model of hers “for as long as [she] can remember,” citing Ginsburg for inspiring her to take part in her first ever Women’s March in 2018. Lamothe proudly held up a sign with one of Ginsburg’s most notoriously well-known quotes, which truly speaks to her legacy as the ‘Notorious R.B.G’.: “I ask for no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

Britney Lamothe [middle] holds up a sign with a quote from Ginsburg’s Documentary ‘RBG’: “I ask for no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

“Ginsburg’s mighty feminist nature will surely be missed on the bench,” said Lamothe.

In reflecting on Ginsburg’s legacy myself (as a woman pursuing law), it’s her quick-wit and fiery comments that stand out to me—qualities that stayed with her until the very end of her tenure on the Supreme Court. 

When I first heard the news of Ginsburg’s passing it still came as a shock. Despite living a full life and leaving behind a legacy that both ignited and accomplished feminist objectives, I couldn’t help but feel as though her fight was not finished.

Perhaps it’s the timing of her death being so close to the long-awaited presidential election, where the void she leaves behind not only means the loss of a heroic figure but also brings forth a pressing issue: who can replace the ‘Notorious R.B.G’? There are some fairly big shoes to fill on the U.S. Supreme Court.   

Ginsburg’s final wish was for her replacement on the Supreme Court to be selected only once “a new president is installed.” Trump, fervently going against the late Justice’s final wishes, has nominated Amy Coney Barrett this past Saturday. Barrett, a ‘proven conservative’, has democratic senators concerned over her opinions on abortion, immigration, and gun rights, as well as her predetermined adversity to the Affordable Care Act.

Ginsburg was a force to be reckoned with, one that not only inspired but enabled strength in other women. She encouraged us to question female tokenism and led by example, turning glass ceilings into broken fragments through her ongoing battle against gender inequalities.

Serena Gandhi, a fourth-year law and business student at Ryerson and Co-president of the Ted Rogers Outreach Program, describes Ginsburg as a motivation of hers to pursue a career in law.

“[She was] an icon, especially with regards to advancing the rights of women in the U.S.,” Gandhi said. 

For Gandhi, the most defining moment in Ginsburg’s career was her passing of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which she described as “a significant turning point for women’s independence.”

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act, passed in 1974, allowed women to apply for credit cards and mortgages without a male co-signer.

Ginsburg is not without her criticisms. One of her more controversial moments includes describing NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem, as “dumb and disrespectful”. Kaepernick stated he was disappointed to hear such language used by a Supreme Court Justice when describing a protest against injustices and oppression.

Mariam Khattak, studying law at the University of Windsor with a special focus in health and intellectual property law describes her admiration for the legacy that Ginsburg left behind for women in the legal field. 

“As a woman of colour studying law, Ruth’s fearlessness in confronting patriarchy within the legal system has inspired me to do so within the legal field and in everyday life,”said Khattak.

Khattak is however very aware of Ginsburg’s more unfavourable moments which also define the Justice’s legacy. Khattak describes that Ginsburg, at times, was “willfully ignorant towards the issues that affect [racialized] Americans”. 

To Khattak, this ignorance implies that her role as a future lawyer, in helping to dismantle systemic racism within our justice system “is more imperative than ever.”

Despite Ginsburg’s historically left leanings, her legacy includes the verdict on the ‘Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation’ case. The Onieda People are an American-Indigenous tribe and First Nations band, as well as one of five founding nations of the Iroquois Confederacy in upstate New York.

The case argued that the stolen land the Onieda People re-purchased should not be subjected to pay taxes to the City of Sherrill. The Onieda People didn’t pay these taxes because they considered this land, that was unlawfully taken from them, to be free from the power of the state. In a Supreme Court decision in the City of Sherrill’s favour, Ginsburg described that given the lack of Oneida Persons in the region and the delay in seeking justice over the matter, they did not have the right to exercise as a sovereign state and therefore were not exempt from paying taxes.

In regards to the basis of the time constraint argument, I’d further argue that disputes regarding the decades of oppression that Indigenous people have been subjected to are at liberty to be an exception of delays in seeking judicial relief. This notion is contingent on principles of restorative justice for Indigineous persons, a practice legitimized in Canadian courts.

Despite her faults and injustices, there’s no denying the impact of Ginsburg’s crusade of gender equality for today’s women in law. ‘The Notorious R.B.G’ is credited for changing the way law recognizes gender. Abbe Gluck, a professor at Yale’s school of law credits Ginsburg in establishing constitutional equality of women through her arguments at the Supreme Court.

Only 50 years later from the establishment of constitutional equality of women in the U.S., I find it quite remarkable to witness first-hand how much the landscape for women, and more specifically women in law, has changed. For me, it’s being in a law class and seeing an equal representation of women to men, or on a more grand scale, it’s knowing that in recent years women have made up almost half of the practicing lawyers in Canada.

However, I am mindful to the fact that the battle of equality for Canadian women in law hasn’t been fought and won; the pay gap still persists among all types of law firms and a significantly fewer number of female lawyers are making it to senior leadership.

In remembering Ginsburg, I appreciate her as a role model of the law who paved the way for women’s equality, a legacy that I have found to be profoundly moving and one that has inspired me to lead a life committed to the causes of social justice.

Ginsburg was the first woman, and the first Jewish person, to lie in state at the U.S Capital. This honour commemorates her lifetime achievements, and for one last time, the Notorious R.B.G. enacts a historical moment for all who believe in pursuing equality under the law. 

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