“I expect Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg managed to hear each other because they valued the common good ahead of their own positions,” AAUW member and Professor Emerita of English Dr. Kathy King said, addressing the bipartisan sisterhood between O’Connor and Ginsburg. “All of us need to practice moving beyond ideological certainty. Perhaps some humility is in order?”
On Thursday, Jan. 17, the UM American Association of University Women (AAUW) held a discussion of American lawyer and author Linda Hirshman’s New York Times Bestseller “Sisters in Law.” AAUW member Kathy Daum led the review as part of the group’s Adelante Book Group series.
Hirshman’s book explores the biographies and legal careers of both Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Both women’s upbringings, as Daum discussed, influenced how they viewed the restrictions imposed upon women on the basis of sex. Although neither O’Connor nor Ginsburg graduated from law school with an emphasis on women’s rights, their developing work in law brought into their vision the conditions limiting the development of and disadvantaging men and women alike.
“O’Connor and Ginsberg show that people’s rights should not be either ‘Republican’ or ‘Democratic,’” Daum observed. “Neither should they be ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal.’”
In the discussion, Daum used Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld as an example, among others cited in Hirshman’s book, which demonstrated how Ginsburg argued against discrimination on the basis of sex as it impacted both males and females restricted by the gendered distinctions in law.
The United States Supreme Court unanimously decided in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld that the gender-based distinction in the Social Security Act of 1935 violated the right to equal protection rooted in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Until this 1975 decision, the distinction only permitted widows to collect special benefits for the care of minor children, but it excluded widowers from doing the same.
As Daum emphasized during the review, Ginsburg argued that the refusal to give special benefits to Stephen Wiesenfeld after his wife Paula Polatschek’s death constituted gender-based discrimination in denying a father (and widower) the same benefits that would be given to a mother (and widow) to care for a minor child, that is, Wiesenfeld’s and Polatschek’s son Jason.
Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, alongside other cases, revealed that the masculine and feminine distinctions imposed upon the male and female sexes contributed to differential treatment which would, at times, disadvantage men and women alike in differing contexts.
Although, as Daum stated, “many in the feminist movement felt that women should be looking after themselves,” not addressing cases such as Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, Ginsburg considered all discrimination arising from either sex or gender as unjust. “It was a perfect case to set up that the government should not discriminate against either gender,” Daum added.
AAUW member and Professor Emerita of English Sandra Lott stated that she was among “the many women in America who were heartened by the presence of this first woman on the Supreme Court.”
For Lott, O’Connor being a woman and holding an unprecedented leadership role “provided a standard for women of all ages” and, with her presence that commanded respect, O’Connor “cut a path for women who would follow.”
Based upon lessons drawn from the civil rights movement and combating racial discrimination in the American legal system, Ginsburg fought against traditional views situated upon the notion, as Lott described it, “that women needed to be protected from the harshness of the male world.”
Ginsburg challenged these gendered distinctions not only in favor of women, but because these views of women’s inherent weakness and vulnerability on the basis of sex “disadvantaged men as well.”
Lott added that, although both O’Connor and Ginsburg addressed their work with dedication, they were also “quite successful as wives and mothers,” as Hirshman interestingly makes clear.
“Contrary to expectations, their careers did not require that they sacrifice the traditional roles of women,” Lott said.
Both O’Connor and Ginsburg paved the way for women in the traditionally male-dominated field of law, but this work did not mean that they somehow could not be wives and mothers.
In spite of the dominance of men in the American legal system, both O’Connor and Ginsburg worked toward securing human rights, constitutionally, for human beings in the United States of America, regardless of race, color, sex, religion, or any other human difference. The two women went “against the male flood,” as Virginia Woolf once described it.
“There has always been the tension among groups on who should have rights. It seems to be continuing,” Daum reflected about America. “I am hoping that it can transcend tribalism. I want to see a day when Florida will not be the only place that convicted felons can again vote.”