The nation mourns this week as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will lie in state in Washington, DC starting Wednesday (Sept. 23) in the Supreme Court and ending the week on Friday (Sept. 25) in the Capitol Building. Ginsburg died on Sept. 18 after serving on the United States Supreme Court for 27 years.
Ginsburg, no matter what one’s political leanings, was considered nearly universally as a titan among jurists and an inspiration to lawyers everywhere, and her loss will be keenly felt. And though her position on the court is what she will ultimately be most known and remembered for – it was the place where she picked up the moniker “the Notorious RBG” and her near-cultlike following among, millennials after all – Justice Ginsburg was also a tireless advocate for women and girls, perpetuating the notion that all citizens were entitled to equal treatment and protection under the law, regardless of their gender.
In her career as a lawyer, Ginsburg was critical to the efforts to make it illegal to fire someone for being pregnant (or to discriminate against someone during a hiring process for planning to get pregnant in the future), to require state schools to admit women, to require that women be allowed to serve on juries, and to require that men be recognized as caregivers by both the IRS and the Social Security Administration.
Ginsburg is often credited with the following quotation uttered at her confirmation to the Supreme Court in 1993 – though she was actually quoting the 19th-century abolitionist Sarah Grimke:
“I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright…”
And, as PYMNTS has covered numerous times, what is critical for any person of any gender seeking to stand upright is control over their financial destiny. It is a control that Ginsburg made possible for American women everywhere – through the transformative power of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) of 1974.
Women have not always been free to control their own money – even if they earned it. Before 1974, banks weren’t inclined to treat women as people separate from their husbands. Single women could have bank accounts in their own names, but upon getting married, those accounts were – as a matter of policy – joined with their new spouse’s account. Credit cards were rarely issued to women directly: A woman’s card was generally issued as a rider on her husband’s, and it was nearly impossible for women to secure cards and loans without male consignors.
The ECOA changed this by specifically banning it. Under the law, it is illegal to discriminate against a borrower “on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status or age in credit transactions.”
When considering a customer for a loan, banks were required to consider their creditworthiness – and only their creditworthiness – in determining whether or not to award it. And if that sounds like common sense to you, as of the early 1970s it didn't seem like common sense to everyone – until a young attorney named Ruth Bader Ginsburg began attacking the status quo, in case after case, in front of the Supreme Court, arguing that discriminating against a citizen on the basis of sex alone was an affront to the Constitution itself.
The most famous case in that group was 1971’s Reed v. Reed, wherein Ginsburg attacked an Idaho state law that required men to be preferred to women when appointing administrators of an estate as inherently unconstitutional. The court agreed, ruling unanimously that dissimilar treatment between men and women “on the basis of sex” was unconstitutional.
Reed v. Reed is the most famous of a series of cases in which Ginsburg challenged legal statutes that codified different treatment for men versus women, on the argument that they violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equal protection under the law. Some of those cases involved an Oklahoma law that set different drinking ages for men and women, a Social Security administration policy that paid widowers with young children less in survivor benefits than widows with young children, and military policies that offered female service members smaller housing allowances than their male counterparts.
The Legacy In The Law’s Changes
According to the National Women’s Law Center, what made Ruth Bader Ginsburg unique among advocates was that her arguments “marked the first time in history that the Court applied the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down laws that discriminated against women.” It’s a sentiment that is echoed even by those who famously disagreed with Ginsburg on her legal interpretations. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia frequently praised Ginsburg’s work as an advocate for civil rights, referring to her as “the Thurgood Marshall” of women's rights.
That advocacy called attention to the fact that women – particularly single women, but married women as well – were frequently victims of codified discrimination when it came to public policies and rules. Ginsburg’s efforts put pressure on lawmakers to not merely prune the worst excesses of that discrimination in individual court cases, but to actually pass legislation that would ban it across the board.
The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) was created in response to a growing wave of pressure in the early 70s, as the legislation officially moved to ban lending discrimination based on sex or marital status. Signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1974, the ECOA made it illegal to evaluate a consumer beyond their creditworthiness when evaluating them as a customer.
It may not be what Justice Ginsburg is most remembered for in her 50-year career, but next time you take your card out to pay later today, remember that if you are a woman, the reason you are able to use that card – in your name, not in a husband’s name – is because Ruth Bader Ginsburg dedicated her career to making sure we are all equal under the law.