The Forty-Year Fight

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s diminutive stature was dwarfed by the marshals that surrounded her as she made her way down the main aisle of the University of Chicago Law School auditorium Saturday afternoon. But when she ascended the stage, the significance of her presence and the weight of her achievements made even that cavernous room feel small.

Ginsburg was there to provide a modern reevaluation of the Burger Court’s 1973 ruling on Roe v. Wade, a decision that is now forty years old. The case, which addressed a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, is now perceived as a landmark decision on women’s rights. While Ginsburg was not a sitting justice at the time of the ruling, her reputation as a “pioneer for gender equality,” as pronounced by Dean of the Law School Michael Schill, made her thoroughly qualified to hold court on the subject.

The audience of well-dressed, enthusiastic law students collectively leaned forward in their seats as Ginsburg began to speak, perhaps expecting an impassioned defense of a decision that has drawn battle lines between pro-life and pro-choice factions in the United States today. But she proceeded to strike a moderate tone, expressing worries about how the universality of the rights afforded by the ruling also made the decision a target for those who would seek to roll back its protections. “Roe became a symbol for the right to life movement,” said Ginsburg. “You have a name, you have a symbol. You can aim at that.”

Instead of heralding a new age of equality, “it seemed to stop the momentum on the side of change,” she continued. Because the approach the court took was not an incremental one, “the cases on abortion now are all about restriction, not about expansion.” In her conversation with Prof. Geoffrey Stone, Ginsburg advocated for a more strategic, measured approach to the legal battle for women’s rights. Her unwillingness to adopt a radical position in this debate marks her as a practical and effective feminist.

Ginsburg’s decades-long struggle for women’s rights is likely to prove one of the most persistent endeavors in modern American legal history, but she expressed sadness that the prevailing attitude toward such efforts to advance gender equality remains lukewarm at best: “In some places, the word ‘feminism’ is the ‘F’ word.” In her parting words to the women in the audience, Ginsburg asserted: “Helping raise the level of all women is something I think women should care about.” Her version of feminism is not just about gaining equality, but is also about the careful reparation of a damaged concept. With hard work, that vision may yet come to fruition.