This month, we honor the justice’s 50-year fight for gender equity
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the CU Times on March 28, 2022, at 10 am.
By Kim Sponem, CEO and President, Summit Credit Union
When we use our debit or credit cards this Women’s History Month, we need to remember we only have them because of the long fight for women’s financial independence led by then attorney, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who later became the pioneering Supreme Court justice.
Bader Ginsburg, known as RBG, spent 50 years of her life paving the way to broaden women’s control over their lives, including the opportunity to open savings accounts or apply for credit cards without the permission of a man.
Her work also opened the doors to fair pay and to more independence for women business owners, some of whom lived in Madison, Wis.
I remember a Madison friend telling members of Madison TEMPO, a woman’s networking group, about her experiences in running a company that she and her husband started. After her husband died in the late 1960s, she needed one of the company’s male vice presidents to sign on any business loans. Keep in mind she was the president, CEO and founder of the company.
Bader Ginsberg, who died in 2020, knew this all too well as a young woman in the 1950s and 1960s. When she applied for financial aid to attend Harvard Law School, officials told her to get a financial statement from her father-in-law. They weren’t interested in Bader Ginsburg’s finances or those of her lower-income husband, who was also a law student.
The insult spurred Bader Ginsburg’s extensive work on gender equality in the 1970s. As a volunteer and later as an employee at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Bader Ginsburg worked on 34 cases that went to the Supreme Court. She won five of the six cases she argued before the high court, and she chose several cases involving sexual discrimination against men because she thought if she could show men suffered from gender inequality, the male jurists would have sympathy for them. That, she reasoned, would eventually help women. And she was right.
Three of the six cases give us insight into Bader Ginsberg’s contributions:
- In 1973, she successfully argued in the Frontiero v. Richardson case that a woman serving in the Air Force faced illegal discrimination because she was not given a housing allowance like her male cohorts.
- In 1975, in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, RBG won the day for a widower denied the Social Security surviving parent benefit after the death in childbirth of his wife, who was the main breadwinner. She argued that gender discrimination against a man is as unfair as it is against a woman and it also reinforces gender role biases for both men and women.
- Also, in 1975 RBG challenged a Louisiana law in Edwards v. Healy that allowed women to opt out of jury duty. While some would argue that this law benefited women by giving them more choices, it hurt women who were on trial.
Bader Ginsburg’s transformational thinking continued when she became a justice on the U.S. Appeals Court and later the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993.
She continued to advance equality through dissents and advocating for new laws throughout her time on the high court.
In our financial lives, we only need to look to Bader Ginsburg’s research as a Columbia University professor and her ACLU work, which ushered in the turning point for American women with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974. The law prohibited discrimination by banks and other financial institutions based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status or age. Women seeking loans or credit began to be evaluated by their credit worthiness, and not that of a husband, father or father-in-law.
Today women still make less money than men for a variety of reasons. They live longer and tend to have higher expenses. Women also tend to look at credit as an expense rather than an investment in their businesses or homes.
Nine out of 10 American women will be the sole financial decision-maker later in life when they may be widowed or left alone as other relatives pass on, according to a 2016 study by the Administration on Aging. Without financial wellness, women can make life-changing mistakes during those times of grief that could result in poverty.
At Summit Credit Union, we are committed to giving women the power, confidence and tools to make good financial decisions throughout their lives. As we close out Women’s History Month, it is important to nod to RBG, note our progress and recognize there is more that we can do.