Three ways RBG showed the power of patience in the fight for equality

This brilliance would not be rushed.
This brilliance would not be rushed.
Image: Reuters/Leah Millis
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Feminist icon, women’s rights champion, pioneering US Supreme Court justice. She was all of these things, as noted in the scores of obituaries published in the wake of her death. Less mentioned is the trait underpinning these accomplishments: unwavering patience.

It was patience that allowed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to press on despite sexism and discrimination when she was starting out as a lawyer, and later drove her carefully constructed strategy for bringing arguments for equality before male-dominated courts. The degree of change she helped push through during her lifetime is a testament to the effectiveness of her approach.

Here are just a few examples of how Ginsburg’s masterful practice of patience paid off, both for her career and American society.

The “patient wife”

When Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1956, there were only nine women in her class of 500, and no bathrooms for them in the buildings where classes were held. The dean at the time routinely asked female students to justify why they were taking a spot that could have gone to a man. “Oh, I mumbled something about my hus­band being in the second­-­year class and that it was important for a wife to understand her husband’s work,” Ginsburg said of her answer to that question in a 2007 interview.

In the 2018 Hollywood movie about her life, On the Basis of Sex, that answer is reimagined as “I’m at Harvard to learn about his work. So that I might be a more patient and understanding wife.” It wasn’t her husband she was needing to be more patient with, of course, but a system that was clearly not ready for her. Downplaying her ambition was her way of getting what she wanted: a law degree.

She had to be patient again when she was turned down for a Supreme Court clerkship—the justice asked the Harvard professor who had recommended her to recommend a man instead—and none of the dozen law firms she applied to would give her a job, despite her having graduated at the top of her class at Columbia Law School (she had transferred there after her husband took a job in New York).

Ginsburg took a different route instead, becoming a professor, a job that left room for her to eventually focus on women’s rights work. “I do think that I was born under a very bright star,” she once told NPR. “It gave me time to devote to the movement for evening out the rights of women and men.”

Case by case

Ginsburg took small cases to slowly build her larger argument for gender equality, a strategy that has been likened to the patience-intensive practice of knitting a sweater. As a lawyer in the 1970s, she advocated for women’s rights to manage the estate of dead relatives, which Idaho didn’t allow, and represented a female Air Force lieutenant who was barred from claiming her husband as a dependent.

She also recognized that sometimes the best way to advance women’s rights was by making the case for men, and their right to equal treatment under the law. One of the landmark cases she argued involved a man who had been denied Social Security benefits after his wife died in childbirth; the benefits he sought were given to widows, but not widowers. “She reasoned that rigid attitudes about sex roles could harm everyone and that the all-male Supreme Court might more easily get the point in cases involving male plaintiffs,” wrote Jonathan Entin, who clerked for Ginsburg when she was an appeals court judge and is now a professor at Case Western Reserve University.

Ginsburg might have been one of her country’s foremost thinkers on equality between the sexes, but she didn’t focus on the complexities of the issue when she was in court. Instead, she essentially carried out a basic education campaign. “I did see myself as a kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days,” she said in RBG, a 2018 documentary about her work. “Because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.”

Again, her patient approach paid off. She won five of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court.

A ripe issue

Getting to that point required patience not only with judges, but with society at large. It took years for the kind of equality she was fighting for to resonate with a majority of Americans and start filtering into court decisions in the 1970s. This is how Ginsburg explained that evolution in an interview last year at the University of Chicago:

“In that decade, in case after case, the Supreme Court struck down gender lines in the law based on the then prevailing separate spheres notion that the man was the breadwinner who counted, the women were responsible for the home and raising the children. … And all that happened during the years of the so-called conservative [Warren] Burger court. My explanation for why it happened is that society had changed and the court was catching up to the way people were living. So the two-earner family had become commonplace in the ’60s and continuing into the ’70s. The time was ripe for the change that the court made.”

Other times, the courts are not ready to budge, and those who are pushing for change must adopt a different tack. In another 2019 interview, this one at the University of Buffalo, Ginsburg brought up one her role models, a lawyer named Belva Lockwood, who in 1876 applied to be admitted to the Supreme Court Bar and was denied because she was a woman.

“But Velva Lockwood was not the type to go off on a corner and cry about her sad fate,” Ginsburg said. “Instead she lobbied the Congress relentlessly for three years, and in the year 1879 Congress passed a law that said women who possess the necessary qualifications must be admitted to the Supreme Court Bar.”

That kind of patience, similar to what Ginsburg experienced at the start of her career, is essentially a choice between carrying on or giving up. But Ginsburg showed that patience does not have to be something we are merely resigned to. Patience also can be a deliberately chosen strategy in the fight for societal change—a fight that fans mourning Ginsburg can carry on in her absence.