On Account of Sex

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Making of Gender Equality Law

Philippa Strum

Before she became the “Notorious R.B.G.” famous for her passionate dissents while serving as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made her most significant contributions as a lawyer who litigated cases on gender equality before the high court in the 1970s. Beginning with Reed v. Reed (1971)—for which Ginsburg wrote her first full Supreme Court brief, and which was the first time the Court held a sex-based classification to be unconstitutional—Ginsburg became known for her work on the issue of gender equality. For Ginsburg, this was not merely a matter of women’s rights; several of the cases she argued concerned gender equality for men, beginning with Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Review (1972). Ginsburg established the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU in 1972 and coedited the first law school casebook on sex discrimination as a professor at Columbia Law School. During the rest of the decade, until President Carter appointed her for the US Court of Appeals in 1980, she litigated cases that further developed gender equality jurisprudence on the basis of the Equal Protection Clause and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Drawing on interviews with RBG herself and those who knew her, as well as extensive knowledge of the cases themselves, Philippa Strum has provided a legal history of Ginsburg’s landmark litigation on behalf of women’s rights and gender equality. Those cases changed the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment and, along with two Supreme Court cases of the 1980s and 1990s (Mississippi v. Hogan and U.S. v. Virginia), remain the foundation of constitutional gender jurisprudence today. On Account of Sex shows why RBG became the rock star of the legal world and gives readers an accessible guide to these widely forgotten but momentous decisions.

“Even those familiar with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s achievements will have much to learn from this richly researched book about how a young lawyer persuaded the all-male Supreme Court to see sex discrimination in a new light. As Philippa Strum demonstrates, for RBG there was no separating law and life, and we are the beneficiaries of the life she lived and the law she made.”

—Linda Greenhouse, author of Justice on the Brink: The Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Rise of Amy Coney Barrett, and Twelve Months that Transformed the Supreme Court

“Many movie-goers were first introduced to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s pioneering litigation for gender equality in the Hollywood film On the Basis of Sex. In Philippa Strum’s similarly titled, deeply researched book they will find an enlightening account of that litigation and its transformative impact.”

—Jane Sherron De Hart, author of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life

About the Author

Philippa Strum is senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC, and professor emerita, City University of New York. Her many books include Louis D. Brandeis: Justice for the People, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in biography, and, from Kansas, Speaking Freely: Whitney v. California and American Speech Law, Women in the Barracks: The VMI Case and Equal Rights, When the Nazis Came to Skokie: Freedom for Speech We Hate, Brandeis: Beyond Progressivism, and Mendez v. Westminster: School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights

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Additional Titles in the Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series