Powerful Lessons Kids Can Learn From Ruth Bader Ginsburg

By Chris Wagner|13 - 14 mins read| March 22, 2023

I woke up on Saturday, the 18th of September, scanned the news feed on my phone, and learned that the U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had passed away at 87 years old.

My heart sank, I cursed 2020 again, and looked over at my daughter still sound asleep between my wife and me. I thanked Justice Ginsburg for her courage and relentless work in helping improve the USA for my daughter and for generations of young girls to follow.

Justice Ginsburg, also known as the “Notorious RBG”, a nickname bestowed on her by admirers, is respected worldwide for many reasons, including her drive to end sex discrimination.

RBG’s accomplishments in the US legal system are many. A few of them include:

  • All state-funded schools must admit women.
  • Women no longer needed a male co-signer to buy a house or open a bank account.
  • Women can no longer be paid less simply because of their sex.
  • Pregnant women can no longer be discriminated against in the workplace.
  • Women can serve on juries.
  • Serving as an example, a rock star, a mentor, and a hero to future generations of women that no matter the odds, meaningful change can happen.   

Most parents, especially dads, believe it is important to recognize the heroes who’ve made sacrifices to ensure our daughters have the same rights men do. That our daughters receive equal pay, opportunity, and have the same rights as men.

While I know my wife is a RBG groupie, it’s also important for our daughters to hear about the importance of women’s rights from us too—the dads, the uncles, the other men in their lives. That this is our expectation for their lives, too.

If Justice Ginsburg’s life and work is new to you, I suggest watching a documentary of her life and work, RBG. It’s available on Netflix in both India and the United States. The film was nominated and won numerous awards and received critical praise after its release in 2018.

Honestly, I can’t wait till my daughter is old enough to watch the documentary with me. As I watched the film, I kept thinking I needed to take notes. There are so many lessons and examples from RBG’s career and life in the documentary that I want to talk about with my daughter. So, until that day arrives, I decided to make a list. Here are the 8 lessons based on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, that I want to share and explore with my daughter.

8 Lessons You and Kids Can Learn From Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Lesson #1 Be a Lady and Be Independent

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RBG, recalled that her mom, who passed away just before she graduated from high school, left her with this bit of wisdom and insight into the challenges of being female in a male-dominated society: “She (my mom) had two lessons she repeated over and over, ‘Be a lady and be independent.’”

RBG explains, “Be a ‘lady’ meant don’t allow yourself to be overcome by useless emotions like anger. And by ‘be independent,’ she meant, it would be fine if you met Prince Charming and lived happily ever after but be able to fend for yourself.”

While I want my daughter to be happy, however she lives her life (married, partnered up, or not), it’s important to me she has the tools to provide for herself. It is also vital that our daughters live in a world where they are not forced to enter or stay in a relationship just to make ends meet.

Lesson #2 Practice and Teach Others Empathy

When RBG is asked at a speaking engagement how she keeps her cool when confronted with an ignorant or outright sexist comment, she replies, “Well, never in anger, that would be self-defeating. (There is) always as an opportunity to teach.”

RBJ continues, “I did see myself as a kind of kindergarten teacher in those days because the (Supreme Court) judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.” When asked how she went about helping the justices see how sex discrimination does indeed exist, she explains, “Well, one of the things I tried to plant in their minds was think about how you would like the world to be for your daughters and granddaughters.”

Later in the documentary, her niece, a graduate of the Harvard Law School, shares, “She taught me that the way to win an argument is not to yell. Because often that will turn people away more so than bringing them to your table.” 

As a dad, I do the best I can to be open to my daughter’s questions and the challenges she encounters growing up. Even today, I know many men, many dads, friends, who believe racism and sexism are issues of the past. In replying to these men, I’m not nearly as cool, calm, and collected as RBG. But when I can connect how their daughter will have a more difficult time than a son or themselves growing up and establishing a career, I know they hear me. Even if they care to admit it or not!

Having the capacity to take a step back and consider why a person thinks and believes the way they do, is such an important strategy in winning people over. This approach is so effective that one of RBG’s best friends on the Supreme Court was the conservative Justice Anthony Scalia.

Lesson #3 Find Friends Who Respect Your Mind and Your Dreams

At RBG’s Supreme Court confirmation, she described her husband Marty Ginsburg and his support in these terms, “I have had the great fortune to share life with a partner truly extraordinary for his generation, a man who believed at age 18, when we met, that a woman’s work, whether at home or on the job, be as important as a man’s.” She continues, “I became a lawyer in days when women were not wanted by most members of the legal profession. I became a lawyer because Marty supported that choice unreservedly.”  

One of our goals is to get our children, especially our daughters, to a place they will accept nothing less from a friend, colleague, academic, or partner.

We moved to Delhi to support my wife’s career, and I absolutely love my daughter growing up with this example. Dads, do your daughters see your support of your partner’s career, interests, and goals?

Lesson #4 Take Your Time Finding a Partner

While RBG and Marty married at an age similar to most of their peers, she also didn’t settle until she found a partner who appreciated her mind and aspirations.

RBG explains at a public event, “Marty and I met when I was 17, he was 18. I was in college. Cornell University was a preferred school for daughters. In those days, there was a strict quota for women. There were four men to every woman. So, for parents, Cornell was the ideal place to send a girl. If she couldn’t find her man there, she was hopeless. My first semester at Cornell, I never did a repeat date.”

“My first semester at Cornell, I never did a repeat date.” I love this advice.  

Because RBG knew she wanted a partner who appreciated her desire to practice law, when she met Marty later, she quickly recognized how well they matched, “But then I met Marty, and there was something amazingly wonderful about this man. He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain. Most guys in the ‘50s didn’t.”

I think both our daughters and sons should add this box to their checklist when choosing who to spend time with. The alternative is not one I want for my daughter, “One of the sadnesses about the brilliant girls who attended Cornell is that they kind of suppressed how smart they were. But Marty was so confident of his own ability, so comfortable with himself, that he never regarded me as any kind of a threat.”

Lesson #5 Sometimes Change Happens One Step at a Time

Before becoming a Federal Judge and later a Supreme Court Justice, RBG co-founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project as a lawyer. She argued and won 5 out of 6 cases in front of the Supreme Court, all of them connected to sex discrimination.

RBG’s first case before the Supreme Court involved a woman recently accepted into the Air Force who did not receive the same housing allowance as her male counterparts. In fact, she was denied any housing allowance and was told, “You should just be happy we let you in the Air Force.”

While RBG won the case, she was disappointed the ruling fell one vote short of establishing a standard of review. This means the ruling didn’t set a standard like race discrimination for future, similar cases. Four justices signed on, but you needed five.

At RBG’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, she explains what she learned from that experience, “I said, it’s too soon. To be candid, my expectation was that I would repeat that kind of argument maybe half a dozen times. I didn’t expect it to happen in one fell swoop. I generally think in our society, real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

Our kids, our daughters, will go through their fair share of ups and downs. Even when an idea like an equal housing allowance for men and women in the Air Force may seem obvious, it wasn’t. At least not enough to get the five votes from the court that she needed. RBG had to learn how to  get up, dust herself off, and continue. This is a beautiful and helpful lesson for our daughters to learn from. Not only because it’s connected to sex discrimination and equal rights, but it’s also an example of how to get back up and continue even after falling short.

Lesson #6 Stand Up for What You Believe In– Think and Dream Big

At a speaking engagement, a moderator asked RBG, “You have said in public many times that the ideal number of women for the Supreme Court of the United States is nine.” After the audience’s laughter died down, RBG sincerely replied, “Why not? Nine men was a satisfactory number until 1981.”

I want my daughter to see from RBG’s example that while change may be slow, our goals and the change we want to see don’t need to be sacrificed. Dream big. Most of the time, it takes big answers, big solutions, to solve old and entrenched problems and ideas. 

Lesson #7 Do What You Love and Find Your Passion and Voice

After graduating from law school, RBG shared during her Senate confirmation hearing, she was unable to find work. “When I graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959, not a law firm in the entire city of New York would employ me.”

Distinguished law professor Arthur Miller describes the historic barriers she was up against, “Four of us from my class, Marty’s class, went to the same law firm. And two of us went to the hiring partner, and said, we have someone on the Harvard Law Review that we think is the cat’s meow. We think this firm should hire her. As soon as I used the “she” pronoun the senior partner looked at me and says, “Young man, you don’t seem to understand. This firm doesn’t hire women.””

From these experiences, the sex discrimination RBG experienced throughout college, law school, and now applying to firms, she found her passion and voice.

During another Q&A, she was asked, “Justice Ginsburg, did you always want to be a judge?”

“The law is something that I think I deal with well. I don’t have the kind of talent that could make one, say, a great opera singer. I wanted to be active in the law. The law is a consuming love for me.”

One of my deepest hopes for my daughter is to love what she does and find a way to contribute to society. What that passion is, what that job looks like, is fairly inconsequential to me but, I hope she chooses something she is passionate about.

Lesson #8 And a Message for Our Sons

One of the most beautiful aspects of the documentary is the love and support Marty and RBG provided each other.

One of the best examples is how well they switched roles when it was RBG’s turn to concentrate on her career. Arthur Miller shares, “He Marty had been extraordinary successful as a practicing lawyer in New York. There were people who would say he was the best tax lawyer in the city of New York and believe me that is saying something.”

Unlike most men then, and a good many today, Marty supported his wife’s career when President Jimmy Carter nominated her to the US Court of Appeals in Washington DC. Professor Miller continues, “He (Marty) was okay playing second fiddle. In fact, he made a joke of it always, he would say, “I moved to Washington because my wife got a good job.”

RBG further explains, “When Marty was starting out in law practice and eager to make partner, I was responsible for the lion’s share of taking care of the home. But when the women’s movement came alive and Marty appreciated the importance of the work I was doing, then I became the person whose career came first.”

RBG describes how surprised people were when discovering Marty left New York to support his wife, When I was appointed to the DC circuit so often people would come up to me and say, “It must be hard for you commuting back and forth to New York,” because they couldn’t imagine that a man would leave his work to follow his wife.”

While our daughters need to know RGB’s story and her work, it’s also essential for our sons to see examples that counter the still persistent narrative that a man’s career comes first, and his wife’s, second.

When RBG and Marty were asked at a speaking engagement, “How much advice do you give each other?” After the laughter of the audience died down, Marty responds, “Well . . . I . . . as a general rule my wife does not give me any advice about cooking, and I do not give her any advice about the law. This seems to work quite well, on both sides.”  

Be the Best You

I want my daughter to be judged on her merits, not her sex, skin color, or the economic class she comes from. I want this for all our daughters. It’s fair, it’s the way the world should be, it’s what a good many of us are striving for.

Professor Miller shares, “He (Marty) allowed Ruth to be who she was, that is, a relatively reserved, serious person, who focused on her law work and loved doing that. And the relationship was just magnificent to watch.”

Sometimes we need to see how this works. How two people can support each other without the influence of what others may think or what society tells them is the appropriate way to exist together.

The work of RBG is just that, making the world equal between men and women. And how she lived her life with her husband is a beautiful example.

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About The Author:

Chris Wagner

Last Updated: Wed Mar 22 2023

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