Redefining Fair With a Simple Careful Assault

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 1993

In the late 1960s, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a little-known law professor, expert in such abstruse subjects as "conflict of laws" and the Swedish legal system. A decade later, she had a place in American constitutional history, and was being touted for the Supreme Court.

More than anything in her life, this lightning advance revealed the strange blend of convention and revolution that so marks President Clinton's high court nominee. Ruth Ginsburg won her fame with what was, at the time, a revolutionary idea: that women were covered by the equal protection promise of the Constitution.

But she sold this idea to the Supreme Court in the most conventional way, through small, careful steps, on behalf of ordinary, unthreatening clients. Many of the clients were men. Ginsburg did not expect the court to force social change; she wanted it to give change a "green light," in her words, and she moved the justices to send that signal through a series of simple, scarcely controversial cases.

"Her personal style has always been measured and restrained," says Lynn Hecht Schafran, of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. "And that fit perfectly with what she tried to do."

Ginsburg's tool was the 14th Amendment, which says, in part: "No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." When she began her assault in the late '60s on gender distinctions in the law, however, the U.S. Supreme Court had never applied that clause to women.

When she began her assault, this was the lay of the land:

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