How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Challenged Ageism

A role model who defied ageist stereotypes and discrimination.

Posted Sep 20, 2020

We mourn the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who was a giant champion of equality and fairness and who fought stereotypes and discrimination. RBG was no stranger to stereotyping and discrimination, as she was often unfairly judged through labels such as woman, working mother, Jew, older adult, and older woman.

RBG is fondly remembered for her immense accomplishments, including challenging age discrimination and becoming a role model who defied ageism and gendered ageism.  

Simmie Knox under commission of the United States Supreme Court/ Public domain
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Source: Simmie Knox under commission of the United States Supreme Court/ Public domain

For over 20 years, RBG faced blatant ageism with persistent public calls to step down as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, a position that uniquely has a lifetime appointment. Justice Ginsburg would aptly point out that Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens retired at 90. Why should an active and leading justice such as RBG be expected to retire before 90? 

Active is undoubtedly a word that quickly comes to mind when thinking of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. RBG defied stereotypes of older individuals and older women as inactive, frail, and weak. RBG served on the highest court until her passing at age 87. She worked tirelessly on the court through family tragedy and illness and was well-known for rarely missing oral arguments. She rode horses into her 70s.

RBG continued her famous workouts through 2020. The celebrated “RBG workout” involved hour-long cardio and strength training and was documented in a book by her longtime personal trainer, Bryant Johnson. RBG was a strong person both figuratively and literally, and she easily earned the title, "Unstoppable Ruth Bader Ginsburg: American Icon" by Antonia Felix.

Exemplifying RBG as a continued leading voice on the Supreme Court and in the legal fight against age discrimination, RBG led and wrote the 2018 unanimous ruling that expanded the Age Discrimination in Employment Act to apply to employers with less than 20 workers (see the case of two fire captains who were terminated; Mount Lemmon Fire Distrct v Guido et al).

As Patricia Barnes noted: “It is little known, for example, that Justice Ginsburg is the author of what is arguably the only positive decision about age discrimination to come out of the U.S. Supreme Court in decades.”

This was an important victory against age discrimination in a country that condones ageism in the workplace, in healthcare where triaging occurs and health problems are dismissed as “normal” aging or complaining, in home and care settings where neglect and abuse occur, and at a broad cultural level where billion-dollar industries support anti-aging treatments.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was many things to many people. She is fondly remembered as a role model, tireless fighter, pioneer, crusader, trail-blazer, Notorious R.B.G., and cultural icon. She was a giant champion of justice and equality. She made the world a better place for countless individuals. 

References

Levy, S.R. (2016). Toward reducing ageism: PEACE (Positive Education about Aging and Contact Experiences) Model. The Gerontologist. Article first published online: 10 AUG 2016, doi: 10.1093/geront/gnw116

Levy, S.R., & Macdonald, J.L. (2016). Progress on Understanding Ageism. Journal of Social Issues, 72(1), 5-25. doi: 10.1111/josi.12153

Monahan, C., Macdonald, J., Lytle, A., Apriceno, M., & Levy, S.R. (2020). COVID-19 and ageism: How positive and negative responses impact older adults and society. American Psychologist. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000699

Lytle, A., & Levy, S.R. (2017). Reducing Ageism: Education about Aging and Extended Contact with Older Adults. The Gerontologist. Article first published online: 19 NOV 2017, https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnx177

Lytle, A., Nowacek, N., & Levy, S. R. (2020). Instapals: Reducing Ageism by Facilitating Intergenerational Contact and Providing Aging Education. Gerontology & Geriatrics Education. doi: 10.1080/02701960.2020.1737047