Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had some good advice for young women today: “Don’t take no for an answer. If it didn’t work today, tomorrow is another day.”
And in true Supreme Court fashion, she looked to historical precedent.
“When things don’t work out right, I have in my chambers some things on the wall that remind me what my attitude should be. And they all involve a woman named Belva Lockwood.”
Don’t know who Belva Lockwood is? Don’t worry — neither did almost the entire room at The National Legal Aid & Defender Association luncheon to award Justice Ginsburg a lifetime achievement award for her work as an advocate for gender-based justice and equality.
Lockwood was the first woman who became a member of the Supreme Court bar – the first woman to practice law before the nation’s highest court. When she first applied in 1876 her application was denied for the simple reason that until that point that bar had been reserved for men, although there was nothing in the law to back it up, explained Ginsburg.
So what did Lockwood do?
“She didn’t go off in a corner and cry,” said Ginsburg. She lobbied Congress “relentlessly” for three years and in 1879 Congress passed a law that mandated that women with the proper qualifications be admitted the Supreme Court bar. Lockwood went on to argue in front of the land’s highest court the same year – one of the first wins in the gender equality battle that continues 135 years later.
Justice Ginsburg, who in 1971 argued Reed v. Reed, which extended the Equal Protections Clause to women, in front of the Supreme Court, is heralded as a dominant force in the movement for gender equality. But ever humble, she says she was just in the right place at the right time.
“There was nothing that the feminists in the 70′s were saying that hadn’t been said 200 years earlier by people like Abigail Adams. The difference was that in the 70′s society was ready to listen,” said Ginsburg.
Today, Justice Ginsburg was awarded the Justice John Paul Stevens Lifetime Achievement Award by Stevens himself in Washington, D.C. She listed Justice Stevens’ accomplishments before accepting the award, explaining how much an honor in his name means to her.