Justice Ginsburg’s Insights on Male Allyship, Fatherhood, and Dads of Daughters

We are all mourning the loss of a feminist icon—and for me, the loss of a personal idol. In the past few days, I’ve pored over articles praising Justice Ginsburg’s powerful support of women as an advocate, litigator, and judge. This part of Justice Ginsburg’s legacy resonates deeply with me as a law professor, mom, and long-time women’s rights activist. I am one of the many women who stands on RBG’s shoulders.

But in addition to all that Justice Ginsburg did to support girls and women, her lifelong fight for gender equity was also on behalf of boys and men. From the beginning, Ginsburg understood the critical allyship role that men can play in achieving a more equitable world—and she envisioned how that world would benefit us all.

Gender equity requires male allies.

Justice Ginsburg spoke frequently about how her husband, Marty Ginsburg, supported her career aspirations. At various times during her legal career, her work became particularly demanding, including when she co-founded the ACLU’s women’s rights project in the 1970’s. Marty understood the importance of his wife’s work, and he took on greater childcare and household responsibilities to empower her efforts. (This included taking on all of the cooking, which reportedly made Justice Ginsburg’s children quite happy).

Women’s equal opportunities in the workplace are advanced by supportive partners at home, and by fathers who are committed to co-parenting. “Women will have true equality,” said Justice Ginsburg, “when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.”

Gender equity empowers engaged fatherhood.

Although many advocates have identified engaged fatherhood as a path to greater women’s workplace equality, Justice Ginsburg also recognized an important flip-side to male allyship: a side that supports men as much as it supports women. Ginsburg advocated for gender equity in part to empower men who want and deserve the opportunity to experience parenting without career loss and stigma. She recognized that disrupting the pernicious gender stereotypes of women as caregivers and men as breadwinners can liberate men as well.

One of Justice Ginsburg’s former Supreme Court clerks, Ryan Park, says that learning this lesson from his former boss helped him decide to become a stay-at-home dad while his wife was completing a pediatrics residency. “The gender-equality debate too often ignores this half of the equation,” says Ryan. “When home is mentioned at all, the emphasis is usually on equalizing burdens—not equalizing the opportunity for men, as well as women, to be there.”

Ryan credits Justice Ginsburg for challenging the “assumption that women and men have different visions of what matters in life—or, to be blunt about it, that men don’t find child-rearing all that rewarding.” Ryan looks back on his time with his daughter as incredibly fulfilling—an experience that he believes all men should be free to pursue.

Fighting for gender equity means supporting this rewarding opportunity for men—a goal that Ginsburg fought for as an ACLU lawyer long before she joined the bench. In 1975, Ginsburg represented Stephen Wiesenfeld—a single father of a newborn—in a case that she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Stephen’s wife had tragically died during childbirth, and Stephen wanted to devote himself to childrearing until his baby was old enough to go to school.

Stephen sought social security benefits that were available for the sole surviving parent of a child under age twelve, but his request was denied because the law only offered the benefits to surviving moms. Justice Ginsburg convinced a unanimous Supreme Court to strike down the law as unconstitutional gender discrimination. She often cited the case as an illustration of “how gender lines in the law are bad for everyone: bad for women, bad for men, and bad for children.”

Dads of daughters have a role to play in advancing gender equity.

Justice Ginsburg also recognized the unique role that the father/daughter relationship can play in building male allyship for gender equity. Of course, having a daughter is neither necessary nor sufficient for becoming a male ally, but it is one way to build men’s empathy for other girls and women.

Justice Ginsburg first had this insight as a practicing lawyer in front of a male-dominated judiciary. “As a litigator,” said Ginsburg, “I would try to get men on the bench to think…about how they wanted the world to be for their daughters and granddaughters.”

Ginsburg also saw the impact of the father/daughter relationship on her male colleagues once she joined the bench. The late Justice William Rehnquist is an example. Rehnquist is known as a staunch conservative, so he surprised advocates and pundits alike with his feminist-inspired opinion in Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs.

The case started when William Hibbs sought time off from work to care for his injured wife, and he got fired from his job. William sued the State for violating the Family and Medical Leave Act, which is a federal law offering employees unpaid leave to care for sick family members. The State argued that the law was unconstitutional because the federal government lacked the authority to direct states’ conduct. Although the case was brought by a man, it was seen as a crucial women’s rights battle because the law also provides time off to care for newborns, and far more women take leave than men.

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When the case reached the Supreme Court, everyone (including William Hibbs’ own lawyer) predicted that Chief Justice William Rehnquist would vote to strike down the Family and Medical Leave Act as applied to states. Rehnquist was one of the most conservative Justices in the Court’s history, not to mention an ardent states’ rights supporter, and a long-time opponent of women’s rights (having argued against the Equal Rights Amendment and having cast a dissenting vote in Roe v. Wade).

Nearly everyone was shocked when the Hibbs opinion was announced as a 6-3 ruling in favor of Mr. Hibbs—authored by Justice Rehnquist himself. Even more shocking was the empathetic justification that Rehnquist gave for upholding the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Rehnquist began the opinion by deploring our deeply-ingrained gender role expectations. He explained that the “mutually reinforcing stereotypes that only women are responsible for family caregiving and that men lack domestic responsibilities” has negative effects on both women and men. It causes women to shoulder the bulk of caregiving, which causes employers to view women as less committed employees—which, in turn, pushes women out of the workforce and pushes men away from their homes.

Justice Rehnquist’s appreciation of both the sources and the effects of gender inequality was inexplicable to most, given his history on equality issues. Many suspected (incorrectly) that Justice Ginsburg had ghostwritten the opinion for him—including Ginsburg’s own husband, Marty. But Justice Ginsburg had a ready explanation for Justice Rehnquist’s apparent feminist enlightenment: he had become a dedicated dad of daughters.

After Rehnquist’s wife died of cancer, he became a single parent of two daughters and a son. Rehnquist was highly involved in his children’s lives, particularly with his older daughter, Janet, who was an attorney. After Janet got divorced, she often dealt with childcare challenges while building her career as a single mom. The same year that Rehnquist decided Hibbs, he often left Court early to pick up his granddaughters from school when Janet needed help with childcare.

Justice Ginsburg saw firsthand the impact that Rehnquist’s daughters had on his views. “When his daughter Janet was divorced,” she explained, “he became more sensitive to things that he might not have noticed.”

When asked how she stayed optimistic in the face of many other Supreme Court opinions that have failed to embrace gender equity principles, Justice Ginsburg often looked back on Justice Rehnquist’s experience. And she often cited one particular source of hope for the future: “I think daughters can change the perception of their fathers.”

Picking up the baton.

As we mourn the loss of the brilliant, compassionate, and irreplaceable Justice Ginsburg, we should also heed her most important advice: “There is still work to be done.” Advancing gender equity for our next generation of both girls and boys requires a continued commitment to challenging gender role stereotypes and supporting work/family integration policies like paid family leave. In Justice Ginsburg’s words: “It takes people, men as well as women, who appreciate that there is a family life as well as a home life to be lived, and press for change.

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Michelle Travis is a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco School of Law and the author of Dads For Daughters: How Fathers Can Give their Daughters a Better, Brighter, Fairer Future.

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