Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Argument in Frontiero v. Richardson, 1973

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Supreme Court Justice (1993–)

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg entered Harvard Law School in 1956, she was one of just nine women in a class of around 500 men. Years later, as a professor at Rutgers Law School, in 1970, Ginsburg taught one of the country’s first courses on women and the law (she had scant scholarship to draw from). Around the same time, she began an organized effort to argue on behalf of cases that she believed would work towards eliminating sex discrimination in public life. Her goal was to persuade the court to recognize sex, like race, as a ‘suspect classification’ – that is, a distinction that requires a standard of ‘strict scrutiny’ to uphold.

In 1973, Ginsburg took on Frontiero v. Richardson, a case in which Sharron Frontiero, a married air force officer, could not secure the same benefits for her dependent husband as those available for the dependent wives of male officers. In her stirring oral argument before the Supreme Court, Ginsburg outlined the ways in which sex-based laws undermine women, reaching back in time to quote from the abolitionist Sarah Grimké, Angelina’s sister (see here). The court agreed, ruling in Frontiero’s favour. ‘There can be no doubt that our Nation has had a long and unfortunate history of sex discrimination,’ Justice William Brennan wrote in the decision. ‘Traditionally, such discrimination was rationalized by an attitude of “romantic paternalism” which, in practical effect, put women not on a pedestal, but in a cage.’

Argument in Frontiero v. Richardson 1973

Sex like race is a visible, immutable characteristic bearing no necessary relationship to ability.

… Women today face discrimination in employment as pervasive and more subtle than discrimination encountered by minority groups.

In vocational and higher education, women continue to face restrictive quotas no longer operative with respect to other population groups.

Their absence is conspicuous in Federal and State Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Chambers in higher civil service positions and in appointed posts in federal, state, and local government.

… Sex classifications do stigmatize when as in Goesaert against Cleary 235 U.S., they exclude women from an occupation thought more appropriate to men.

The sex criterion stigmatizes when it is used to limit hours of work for women only.

… The sex criterion stigmatizes when … it assumes that all women are preoccupied with home and children and therefore should be spared the basic civic responsibility of serving on a jury.

These distinctions have a common effect.

They help keep woman in her place, a place inferior to that occupied by men in our society.

… In asking the Court to declare sex a suspect criterion, amicus urges a position forcibly stated in 1837 by Sarah Grimké … She said, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”