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Equality, Sex and Gender

Feminist author Marilyn French, whose 1977 novel The Women’s Room added fuel to the fire of the Equal Rights Movement, died this month.

French’s death, coupled with speculation that President Obama will name a woman to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, got me thinking of the court’s only current female member and how she also sought gender equality in the 1970s.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s feminism resided in the courtroom, where as a civil rights attorney she led the high court to rule that women are a “suspect class” under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

Government may favor one gender over another in law or policy only when the favoritism is substantially related to achieving an important governmental goal, the court said.

The ruling led to the end of paternalistic policies, such as those that had permitted widows – but not widowers — to get Social Security benefits for their dependent children.

Ginsburg, now 76, waged this legal battle for equality with humor.

At her Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1993, Ginsburg explained why the legal community should refer to the evil as “gender” discrimination.

“In the 1970’s when I was [teaching] at Columbia [University law school] and writing briefs, articles and speeches about distinctions based on sex, I had a  bright secretary,” Ginsburg told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “She said one day, ‘I have been typing this word, sex, sex, sex,  over and over. Let me tell you, the audience you are addressing, the men you are addressing’ – and they were all men in the appellate courts in those days – ‘the first association of that word is not what you are talking about. So I suggest that you use a grammar-book term. Use the word ‘gender.’ It will ward off distracting associations.’”