Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday, the Supreme Court announced.
Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement that “Our nation has lost a jurist of historic stature.”
Even before her appointment, she had reshaped American law. When he nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, President Bill Clinton compared her legal work on behalf of women to the epochal work of Thurgood Marshall on behalf of African-Americans.
The comparison was entirely appropriate: As Marshall oversaw the legal strategy that culminated in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that outlawed segregated schools, Ginsburg coordinated a similar effort against sex discrimination.
Decades before she joined the court, Ginsburg’s work as an attorney in the 1970s fundamentally changed the Supreme Court’s approach to women’s rights, and the modern skepticism about sex-based policies stems in no small way from her lawyering. Ginsburg’s work helped to change the way we all think about women – and men, for that matter.
I’m a legal scholar who studies social reform movements and I served as a law clerk to Ginsburg when she was an appeals court judge. In my opinion – as remarkable as Marshall’s work on behalf of African-Americans was – in some ways Ginsburg faced more daunting prospects when she started.
Starting at zero
When Marshall began challenging segregation in the 1930s, the Supreme Court had rejected some forms of racial discrimination even though it had upheld segregation.
When Ginsburg started her work in the 1960s, the Supreme Court had never invalidated any type of sex-based rule. Worse, it had rejected every challenge to laws that treated women worse than men.
For instance, in 1873, the court allowed Illinois authorities to ban Myra Bradwell from becoming a lawyer because she was a woman. Justice Joseph P. Bradley, widely viewed as a progressive, wrote that women were too fragile to be lawyers: “The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfil the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”
And in 1908, the court upheld an Oregon law that limited the number of hours that women – but not men – could work. The opinion relied heavily on a famous brief submitted by Louis Brandeis to support the notion that women needed protection to avoid harming their reproductive function.
As late as 1961, the court upheld a Florida law that for all practical purposes kept women from serving on juries because they were “the center of the home and family life” and therefore need not incur the burden of jury service.
Challenging paternalistic notions
Ginsburg followed Marshall’s approach to promote women’s rights – despite some important differences between segregation and gender discrimination.
Segregation rested on the racist notion that Black people were less than fully human and deserved to be treated like animals. Gender discrimination reflected paternalistic notions of female frailty. Those notions placed women on a pedestal – but also denied them opportunities.
Either way, though, Black Americans and women got the short end of the stick.
Ginsburg started with a seemingly inconsequential case. Reed v. Reed challenged an Idaho law requiring probate courts to appoint men to administer estates, even if there were a qualified woman who could perform that task.
Sally and Cecil Reed, the long-divorced parents of a teenage son who committed suicide while in his father’s custody, both applied to administer the boy’s tiny estate.
The probate judge appointed the father as required by state law. Sally Reed appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
Ginsburg did not argue the case, but wrote the brief that persuaded a unanimous court in 1971 to invalidate the state’s preference for males. As the court’s decision stated, that preference was “the very kind of arbitrary legislative choice forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.”
Two years later, Ginsburg won in her first appearance before the Supreme Court. She appeared on behalf of Air Force Lt. Sharron Frontiero. Frontiero was required by federal law to prove that her husband, Joseph, was dependent on her for at least half his economic support in order to qualify for housing, medical and dental benefits.
If Joseph Frontiero had been the soldier, the couple would have automatically qualified for those benefits. Ginsburg argued that sex-based classifications such as the one Sharron Frontiero challenged should be treated the same as the now-discredited race-based policies.
By an 8–1 vote, the court in Frontiero v. Richardson agreed that this sex-based rule was unconstitutional. But the justices could not agree on the legal test to use for evaluating the constitutionality of sex-based policies.
Strategy: Represent men
In 1974, Ginsburg suffered her only loss in the Supreme Court, in a case that she entered at the last minute.
Mel Kahn, a Florida widower, asked for the property tax exemption that state law allowed only to widows. The Florida courts ruled against him.
Ginsburg, working with the national ACLU, stepped in after the local affiliate brought the case to the Supreme Court. But a closely divided court upheld the exemption as compensation for women who had suffered economic discrimination over the years.
Despite the unfavorable result, the Kahn case showed an important aspect of Ginsburg’s approach: her willingness to work on behalf of men challenging gender discrimination. She reasoned that rigid attitudes about sex roles could harm everyone and that the all-male Supreme Court might more easily get the point in cases involving male plaintiffs.
She turned out to be correct, just not in the Kahn case.
Ginsburg represented widower Stephen Wiesenfeld in challenging a Social Security Act provision that provided parental benefits only to widows with minor children.
Wiesenfeld’s wife had died in childbirth, so he was denied benefits even though he faced all of the challenges of single parenthood that a mother would have faced. The Supreme Court gave Wiesenfeld and Ginsburg a win in 1975, unanimously ruling that sex-based distinction unconstitutional.
And two years later, Ginsburg successfully represented Leon Goldfarb in his challenge to another sex-based provision of the Social Security Act: Widows automatically received survivor’s benefits on the death of their husbands. But widowers could receive such benefits only if the men could prove that they were financially dependent on their wives’ earnings.
Ginsburg also wrote an influential brief in Craig v. Boren, the 1976 case that established the current standard for evaluating the constitutionality of sex-based laws.
Like Wiesenfeld and Goldfarb, the challengers in the Craig case were men. Their claim seemed trivial: They objected to an Oklahoma law that allowed women to buy low-alcohol beer at age 18 but required men to be 21 to buy the same product.
But this deceptively simple case illustrated the vices of sex stereotypes: Aggressive men (and boys) drink and drive, women (and girls) are demure passengers. And those stereotypes affected everyone’s behavior, including the enforcement decisions of police officers.
Under the standard delineated by the justices in the Boren case, such a law can be justified only if it is substantially related to an important governmental interest.
Among the few laws that satisfied this test was a California law that punished sex with an underage female but not with an underage male as a way to reduce the risk of teen pregnancy.
These are only some of the Supreme Court cases in which Ginsburg played a prominent part as a lawyer. She handled many lower-court cases as well. She had plenty of help along the way, but everyone recognized her as the key strategist.
In the century before Ginsburg won the Reed case, the Supreme Court never met a gender classification that it didn’t like. Since then, sex-based policies usually have been struck down.
I believe President Clinton was absolutely right in comparing Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s efforts to those of Thurgood Marshall, and in appointing her to the Supreme Court.
Colleges And Universities Reverting To Online Instruction
On August 17, seven days after the start of in-person classes, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced that, due to a dramatic increase in Covid-19 on campus, all undergraduate classes would be held online for the remainder of the fall. Ithaca College and Michigan State pulled the plug on August 18. Two days later, N.C. State joined the club. More may follow. (The Chronicle of Higher Education maintains a live update feed.) In fact, only a minority of colleges and universities are still attempting fall instruction fully or primarily in person (about 25% at this writing).
Only time will tell if these rapid course changes were warranted and, of course, the answer may not be the same everywhere. Each institution is unique with respect to size, culture, infrastructure to provide online learning, and ability to cope with transmission.
What We Know About Infectious Diseases On College Campuses
In thinking about Covid-19 transmission on campus, it may be useful to know something about the science of epidemics among college students in general. There is a small scientific literature on disease outbreaks on campus. Campuses are special for several reasons. News photos of students lounging on green quads, engaged in late night study groups, or partying into the wee hours reminds us that if college is known for anything other than studying and college sports, it might be the unique gregariousness that attaches to what many people call the “college experience.”
Although outbreaks of infectious diseases on college campuses are routinely reported, there is little evidence that they are more explosive than in the general population. Outbreaks of directly transmitted diseases like measles, mumps, and whooping cough occur with some regularity and are typically contained through isolation and other public health measures. But, no study has been done to systematically examine how the campus environment differs from community-based transmission.
Influenza is a particularly interesting case because, like Covid-19, it is a respiratory disease transmitted directly through close contact and also has a short incubation period. The basic reproduction number (R0) is a measure of the explosiveness of an epidemic, with anything over R0 = 1 indicating the possibility of sustained transmission.
In 2014, CDC and academic scientists compiled a list of all estimates of R0 for influenza. While most estimates for the 2009 pandemic were between 1 and 2, estimates from some schools (not necessarily colleges or universities) were noticeably higher (2.3 for a school in Japan and 3.3 for a school in the United States), although other cases (Iran and the United Kingdom) were similar to the rest of the population.
Perhaps more importantly, a study in Pullman, Washington (home to Washington State University) estimated R0 of the 2009 pandemic flu to be around 6, which is two to four times larger than most other estimates. So there is some evidence that campus contagions may be more prone to outbreak than other places.
Since Covid-19 is typically much less severe in young adults than in older adults, another question that seems particularly important now is whether transmission among students remains primarily within the student population or readily spreads to the rest of the community.
In a measles outbreak at a university in China, the fraction of staff who were infected was not statistically different from the fraction of students. The total number of staff infected — three — was small, however, and it seems unlikely that this is the usual pattern.
A study of the 2009 influenza pandemic at the University of Delaware found that the risk of infection for people older than 30 was roughly half the risk of those that were 18 to 29.
An even more interesting aspect of the University of Delaware study is the association with student activities. Reports of influenza-like illness among students at a nearby emergency health center remained stable for almost a month after spring break. But cases increased almost five-fold following “Greek week”. In the final analysis, belonging to a fraternity or sorority doubled a student’s chances of being infected.
What’s Happening Now
This is concerning now as cases of Covid-19 are rising among college students nationwide. College leaders such as Penn State president Eric Barron, University of Kansas chancellor Douglas Girod, and University of Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman have reproached students, especially fraternities and sororities, for ignoring guidance to avoid large gatherings.
Yesterday, J. Michael Haynie, Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and Innovation publicly excoriated students at Syracuse University for “selfishly jeopardizing” the possibility of in-person instruction this fall. “Make no mistake,” he wrote, “there was not a single student who gathered on the Quad last night who did not know and understand that it was wrong to do so.”
The science of Covid-19 tells us that students are vulnerable, just like everyone else. Although the evidence is somewhat thin, what there is points only in one direction: because of their specific social structure, college campuses are especially prone to outbreaks of infectious diseases. As in the rest of society, the only way to slow down the Covid-19 pandemic on college campuses is to reduce the rate of infectious contacts. There is too much value in the college experience to reduce it to partying, and it should not be squandered altogether for the sake of the party experience.
Before deciding on whether to hold the 80th annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, the local city council turned to its residents to get their take.
We are two months into life in the age of COVID-19 and it’s getting more complicated. Right as many of us were getting used to staying distanced, staying home, and staying in, some states and areas are relaxing restrictions. It isn’t life as it used to be, and it’s inconsistent across the nation. As we all try to figure out what relaxing measures means and what we are comfortable with, we’ve also embraced full on what life via video chat and living six feet apart can be like. Like normal humans, we all have questions, concerns, pet peeves, opinions and of course mute buttons that malfunction.
Before we dive into Etiquette in the Age of COVID-19 we would like to start by saying:
The threat of the novel coronavirus is still present. Until we have a vaccine or until we’ve gotten a handle on this virus’ impact on us, we are going to see requests, and requirements to physically distance ourselves and use personal protective measures like masks and hand washing regularly. It has changed our social behavior and it will continue to change our social behavior as communities find ways to interact safely. These new social measures can feel incredibly awkward and at times impolite, but you are not alone in feeling that way about them. Everyone is learning and figuring this out as we go.
Safety is the guideline right now and measures that we take to protect ourselves and others are right in line with the Emily Post principles of etiquette: consideration, respect, and honesty.
To find more information about the virus, it’s spread and what precautions and measures to take please visit:
As well as your state or local department of health.
When we think about what advice to give, we think first about safety and then about how to be kind and considerate and respectful when trying to be safe. Safety comes before etiquette. This doesn’t mean we toss consideration, respect, and honesty out the window. Far from it, we’ve seen how doing so can lead to tragically bad and completely unnecessary things happening. What it means is that how we interact and what is deemed “polite” or “acceptable” behavior will change during this time. Let’s look at some of the basics to consider here and for specific topics see these articles:
Zoom/Video Call Etiquette for Socializing (coming soon)
Zoom/Video Call Etiquette for Work (coming soon)
Navigating Hanging Out Together Apart (coming soon)
We are all familiar with the term “social distancing” by now. And many are encouraging the use of the phrase “physical distancing” instead which helps people to imagine a less isolated solution. Our goal for physical distancing is that when out and about in public or when socializing with those we don’t live with, we keep ourselves – or our family group – at least 6 feet away from others when possible.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. We’ve all navigated a tight aisle at a store, an elevator or stairwell, or a friend leaning in too closely despite feeling awkward. But what is the right thing to do?
We get asked, more than anything else through our podcast and media interviews, how do you speak up when something is wrong, or bothering you? It’s not an easy thing to do. How you do it makes a huge difference to how well it’s received, but it’s not a magic key. You can never predict someone else’s reaction, especially that of a stranger. So our first piece of advice is and always will be to seek the help of someone in charge if the scenario provides such a person. A manager, usher, flight attendant, host, or whomever is in charge, can have the authority to help you and can also ensure that you aren’t dealing with someone alone. That being said, you don’t do this as a way to punish someone else, it’s to make sure a concern is raised, or that help or safety can be achieved.
If someone at a store hasn’t given you enough space to pass or reach the item you’d like, then a friendly “Mind giving me just a little more space so I can pass [or grab that item] safely?” You want to have an upbeat tone to your delivery, no edge whatsoever (think that person you know who is always upbeat, or sounds cheerful and if no one comes to mind think: how would Glinda the Good Witch, Dr. Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, the CW’s Superman say it?). If the person scoffs at you, you can either pass anyway keeping as much distance as possible, wait until they move farther away, or go get something else and come back later.
Other phrases that are being heard and used when out and about to manage distancing:
Excuse me Sir, the line starts back there, everyone’s just distanced.
(while stepping back) Sorry I’m trying to keep 6 feet away.
Excuse me, I was next.
I’ll wait and catch the next elevator.
After you, please. (said genuinely)
Do you mind giving us just a little bit more space please, (hopefully followed by a: thank you so much)
A little space please.
Flow of Traffic
While following the guidance of the arrows and directions through stores is always important, it’s not worth getting into an altercation over. Either pass, doing what you can keep your distance, or go back the other way if the aisle isn’t crowded. Don’t make a stand when there are other safe options.
Public Outdoor Spaces
When it comes to public outdoor spaces it’s important to respect any distancing guides that have been put in place whether it’s marked areas to lounge or workout in, or directions for flow of traffic. Remember that even though you’re spaced apart from others, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze as well as not coughing, sneezing, singing, or yelling in the direction of others is helpful.
When trying to create physical distance on sidewalks, recreational paths and trails, you’re still trying to aim for six feet (about two adult arm lengths) apart. It’s really thoughtful if you’re a group or family out together to consider dropping to single file when passing others to help make room.
If it’s easy for you to be the person to step off the path or into the street (because you aren’t, using a walking or mobility aid, managing a frisky dog, balancing a toddler and a baby carriage or are on foot rather than wheels) to create space by all means make the move and do so early so that the other person doesn’t even have to guess at it.
Greetings continue to feel lacking during this strange time. Despite wonderfully bright and cheery waves, mini dances, hops, and skips when we meet, we miss hugs and solid handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps. Greetings that involve touching are still not recommended at this time, so perfect your waves (you know your “professional wave”, your “zoom-meeting wave”, your “I-love-you-Grandma wave”, your “I-haven’t-seen-you-and-I’m-trying-so-hard-not-to-hug-you wave”) and use your tone of voice to match the occasion.
While masks are causing a lot of divisiveness, when combined with physical distancing wearing a mask in public can greatly reduce the risk of spread. Wearing masks may be around for a while so it’s best to try and get used to what it’s like to interact with them on. Since most people are wearing cotton or medical masks and few have clear plastic ones allowing their full face to be seen we are more often than not without many facial cues.
Smiling (anyway), and using your eyes (cue acting skills from every medical show ever for inspiration) and hands to gesture will be the way to connect while wearing masks.
Masks unfortunately also muffle the sound of our voice and so it’s important to get comfortable speaking up, especially when in a noisy store or on a loud street. While you don’t want to shout to the point of sounding unnatural or making the listener uncomfortable, you do need to literally speak up to be heard. If you don’t, often the other person will lean in to hear you, and then you end up stepping back to recreate some space. It’s a odd dance but it happens often.
As we move into figuring out dining indoors and patio dining scenarios be prepared to see people storing their masks in a paper bag or envelope while eating. Some places may place plastic shields between tables or even at tables depending on the restaurant and local requirements.
Wearing masks outdoors is not a bad idea if you’re passing frequently while out on rec paths and trails or in the park or on the sidewalks of your neighborhood. Many choose to “mask when they pass” and let their mask down while on long stretches without others or when there’s more than enough room to pass without any worry. (According to this article in the New York Times, you’re more likely to encounter an issue for yourself if you have prolonged time indoors without masks on than if you pass someone outdoors without a mask on.)
If you’re uncomfortable when you encounter someone without a mask on resist the urge to glare or tsk at them. Do what you can to keep yourself physically distanced and avoid interacting instead. Remember you can only control yourself as best you can. There will be times when it doesn’t go perfectly and even though that can cause stress and anxiety, which often lead to rudeness, arming ourselves with kindness and avoiding judgement of others is good etiquette.
Contact tracing – tracing the virus’ spread through individuals who have tested positive or been around those who tested positive for COVID-19 – is happening at different rates throughout the country, but early indications show that contact tracing by businesses and through events that we attend may become commonplace. Many places already use your phone number or email address to contact you about tickets or a reservation or even a purchase so it’s not unfamiliar. But to have it be connected to our health when visiting a restaurant can feel very different. While we don’t know yet exactly how contact tracing will impact our personal social gatherings (birthday parties, showers, weddings…) or our public socializing (bars, sports, groups, restaurants…) we are considering the possibility that in the future a host’s to-do list list, or advice for making a restaurant reservation for a work lunch might involve contact info for potential contact tracing follow ups.
We cannot emphasize this enough right now. These are extraordinary times and there are so many ways this virus is impacting all of us. Especially when it comes to how we are mentally handling the longevity of this pandemic. You don’t know what is affecting someone’s life making the current threat even worse (financially, emotionally, physically). It’s important to respect people where they are at, and not blow off their concerns or drive fear where it doesn’t need to be.
Many of us are so fortunate to have so many ways to connect to help get us through this crisis together, but loneliness and anxiety are still huge concerns. Reaching out to one another. Being patient and kind with each other. Listening to one another. Respecting one another. Helping those in need. These are the kinds of attitudes and actions that will carry us through. They often cost us nothing, and yet they can make an impactful difference.