Thank You, RBG

October 15, 2020


In 1971, I interviewed a young doctor in Michigan who had been working as an ER physician but wanted to open her own medical practice. She applied for a bank loan, and was duly informed she needed her husband’s signature in order to get the loan.

Mind you, the doctor was earning a substantial salary at the time; her husband was unemployed, but no matter. She had to get his signature.

This shocking gender inequity made a deep impression on me. I was a young reporter and wasn’t really focused on all the things that I, as a woman, wasn’t permitted to do in 1971. But Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a new lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, understood these inequities very well. Passionate about equality for women, she began in 1971 to cleverly argue—and win—numerous Supreme Court cases that chipped away at gender inequality laws that preferred males to females.

Three years after her first pivotal case, Congress in 1974 passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on their gender, race, religion, and national origin. Now a woman could easily get a credit card in her own name. The Michigan doctor, and other women like her, would no longer need a husband’s signature to obtain a loan.

More court cases were argued and new laws were passed and, within a decade or so, the world changed for women. RBG, that fierce advocate for women who died last month at the age of 87 after serving nearly three decades as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, is the main reason why.

After Justice Ginsburg died, I began researching the things women couldn’t do in 1971, the year she undertook her methodical mission to make women equal under the law.

In 1971 a woman could not:

  1. Get a credit card in her own name.
  2. Obtain birth control. It wasn’t until 1972 that birth-control pills were available to all women, regardless of marital status.
  3. Be guaranteed she wouldn’t be fired for getting pregnant. That changed with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.
  4. Serve on a jury. It varied by state, but it wasn’t until 1973 that women could serve on juries in all 50 states. (South Carolina finally allowed women on juries in 1967, the second-to-last state to do so. Mississippi was the last.)
  5. Fight on the front lines. Women weren’t admitted to military academies until 1976, and it wasn’t until 2013 the military lifted its ban on women in combat.
  6. Get an Ivy League education. It wasn’t until 1983 the eighth and final Ivy League school started to admit women.
  7. Take legal action against workplace sexual harassment. Indeed, the first time a court recognized sexual harassment as grounds for any legal action was in 1977.
  8. Decide not to have sex if her husband wanted to. Spousal rape wasn’t criminalized in all 50 states until 1993. That’s right, 1993.
  9. Obtain health insurance at the same monetary rate as a man. Sex discrimination (referred to as “gender rating” by health insurance companies) wasn’t outlawed in health insurance until 2014 as part of the Obamacare legislation.

Women are guaranteed all of these rights— and more—today. Thank you, RBG.

Jan Collins 2021-circle-crop

Jan Collins is a Columbia, South Carolina-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).