Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death is being mourned by the country, and in Virginia, female lawyers and legislators are reflecting on her legacy. Some called her a role model, others called her a trailblazer, but they all admired the impact she left.
Ginsburg died Friday at age 87 from complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer.
Alison McKee, president of the Virginia Bar Association, said Ginsburg was one of the most empowering women in the law profession. The VBA is a membership organization of state attorneys who promote legislative changes.
“She was an extraordinary force in attempts to overcome gender inequality,” McKee said. “Overall, to borrow a phrase from Sheryl Sandberg, she leaned in for all women in our profession and helped to close the gap on gender inequality.”
Ginsburg’s fight for gender equality changed a Virginia college’s admissions process in the 1990s. She wrote the majority opinion in the 1996 case that allowed women to attend the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. VMI was the last male-only college in the United States until the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion that since a 1971 ruling, the Court “has repeatedly recognized” laws incompatible with the equal protection principle and that denied women access “simply because they are women, full citizenship stature-equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.”
Ginsburg was also a longtime advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that seeks to guarantee equal rights for all regardless of sex. The ERA first passed Congress in 1972 but could not collect the three-fourths state support needed to ratify it. In January, Virginia became the final state needed to ratify the amendment, though the 1982 deadline has passed. A congressional bill to eliminate the ratification deadline passed the House in February and is sitting in a Senate committee. Over the years Ginsburg has still vocalized support for the ERA, though in February she said she would like “it to start over.”
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, was a co-patron of the ERA in Virginia.
“I think we’re carrying on her work, carrying on her legacy to make life, liberty and justice for all include all and include women equally,” McClellan said. “We carried on her work with that, very much an inspiration there too.”
Del. Hala Ayala, D-Woodbridge, who was a co-patron on the ERA in the House of Delegates, called Ginsburg “our firewall to protect civil rights, voting rights and everything that we fight for” in a statement Friday night.
“My life’s work for women’s equal justice, including championing the Equal Rights Amendment in the Virginia House of Delegates, was inspired by Justice Ginsburg’s work,” Ayala wrote. “Her determined spirit gave me the motivation to fight everyday for what is right, knowing that we would make our Commonwealth and our country a better place.”
Ginsburg was a pioneer for women in the law profession, becoming the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 after Sandra Day O’Connor.
Margaret Hardy, president of the Virginia Women Attorneys Association, said seeing someone that looked like her in the law profession is “critically important,” and that’s why diversity is important—so everyone has a role model.
“I think that just seeing a woman because in her case, in many instances, she was the woman, not just one of many,” Hardy said. “I think just for anyone seeing someone in a profession that you’re entering who looks just like you is an inspiration.”
Lucia Anna “Pia” Trigiani, former president of the Virginia Bar Association, called Ginsburg a role model for all lawyers, not just women.
“For her to do what she did, she also showed not only women that it could be done, but men,” Trigiani said. “She showed everyone that it could be done.”
McClellan equated Ginsburg to civil rights lawyer and former Justice Thurgood Marshall.
“I think she for women’s rights was what Thurgood Marshall was for civil rights,” McClellan said. “I as a woman lawyer, as a woman lawmaker, stand on her shoulders.”