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The conservative case for Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
(AP Photo/Rebecca Gibian)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The new Hollywood biopic "On the Basis of Sex," starring Felicity Jones, depicts U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's journey from being one of just a handful of women at Harvard Law School to arguing the gender equality case that launched her career. Setting aside Ginsburg's left-leaning politics, it's nearly impossible not to relate to her, even as a conservative woman.

In Washington, D.C., partisan politics takes precedence above everything else -- including pragmatic and constructive solutions to problems. People will cross the street to avoid someone of the opposite ideology. This mindset has diffused into American society. But Washington is different from other major political meccas. In Paris, for example, politics is considered a blood sport, but with the emphasis on "sport." Outside of Washington, it's more common to find that someone can disagree with another person's ideology while still respecting or appreciating that individual. It's not difficult for a right-leaning woman who adheres to the conservative principles of independence, self-reliance, action and substance over rhetoric, and the pursuit of goals against all headwinds to relate to Ginsburg's experience.

"On the Basis of Sex" chronicles Ginsburg's persistence and drive in law school and in her career despite facing challenges that might have caused others to throw in the towel. When her husband, a fellow Harvard Law student, was diagnosed with cancer and faced a grim prognosis (he later recovered), she helped by typing his papers. After graduating from Columbia Law School -- she transferred from Harvard so she could keep her family together when her husband was offered a job with a Manhattan firm -- Ginsburg was rejected by law firms for gender-related reasons. Among the concerns: that the wives of other lawyers might get jealous, and that a woman who graduated at the top of her class would be a "real ball-buster."

After landing a professorship at Rutgers University Law School, Ginsburg collaborated with her tax lawyer husband Marty in successfully arguing the Moritz v. Commissioner case before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The case determined that it was discriminatory for the government to deny a caregiver tax deduction to a man. The outcome delivered a blow to systemic gender inequality under the law.

Ginsburg's story is about her choice to spend her life contributing to the larger world rather than staying in the safe, comfortable sphere to which women were traditionally relegated. Concrete and persistent action by women getting out into the world and excelling in their chosen field is what inches women ahead. Action should unite women more than ideology separates us.

Consider, for example, the late conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, who earned law and master's degrees, worked as a ballistics gunner and technician during World War II, and embarked on a career as a writer and activist.

Schlafly's background wasn't dissimilar to Ginsburg's. But unlike Ginsberg, Schlafly advocated against the Equal Rights Amendment and in favor of traditional gender roles. She justified this stance by citing a desire to protect women from conscription into the Army and the obligation to serve in combat. Schlafly also sought to safeguard the advantages enjoyed by women over men in child custody and divorce cases.

It's too simplistic to argue that Schlafly and Ginsburg were diametric opposites, or that Schlafly was some kind of traitor to career women. Schlafly's opposition to the ERA stemmed from very specific objections.

Inherent to the argument that men and women should be treated equally is the notion that they should be subject to the same risks. Schlafly opposed provisions of gender equality that would put the well-being of women at risk. Was she wrong to have done so?

True equality between women and men means that women must be afforded all of the same opportunities -- and risks -- as men, with no added safety nets and the exact same right as men to fail.

Ginsburg and Schlafly were trailblazers who had the character and inner strength to pursue paths that diverged from tradition and convention in order to live lives of meaning. They happened to be on opposite sides of the ideological divide, but they're more alike than not. Women can learn a lot from both about taking action to move the needle in society on behalf of all women.

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