RBG was a champion for reproductive freedom, equal pay and pregnancy accommodations, and her work carries on through these advocates
The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has long been acclaimed for carrying the weight of progressive issues in the Supreme Court on her small yet mighty shoulders. A fierce defender of reproductive freedoms and gender equality, Ginsburg shaped the legal fight for women’s rights since the early ’70s.
While the political battle over her vacant seat promises to cement a different direction on the Supreme Court, advocacy leaders and politicians in Oregon are continuing the battles for women’s freedoms and gender equality.
Street Roots spoke to three of these Oregonians carrying the banner forward through research, advocacy and legislation.
Emily Evans, Women’s Foundation of Oregon
Wage and wealth gap
Ginsburg championed the right for women to make equal wages and hold wealth. She offered a critical dissent in the 2007 case Ledbetter vs. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., arguing that compensation disparities can slowly accumulate over time and are often “hidden from sight.”
Two years later, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 into law, siding with Ginsburg’s dissent and making it so workers can file complaints about discriminatory pay without strict time restrictions. Still, the fight for equal wages is far from over in Oregon and across the country.
In 2016, the Women’s Foundation of Oregon found that Oregon women earn between 53 and 83 cents — depending on race and ethnicity — for every dollar Oregon men earn. Director Emily Evans said this figure has not changed much in the years since.
The gender wage gap “pretty much stagnated for the past 20 years because we haven’t made our systems any better,” Evans said. “We’ve already maxed what we can possibly ask of women themselves within the system as it’s currently designed.”
While women’s wages in Oregon are higher than in most states, Oregon’s wealth gap is among the largest in the nation. Women hold about 35 cents per every dollar a man holds. Evans said that this is partly because women have not been able to hold wealth until relatively recently. Ginsburg helped secure this right by making it possible for married women to have bank accounts and credit cards in their names.
Evans said systemic inequities are the root cause for the gender pay and wealth gap, along with issues such as gaps in reproductive access, caregiving and violence against women.
With the meltdown during the pandemic, Evans sees an opportunity to start to make systemic change and work toward gender equity in the workplace.
The Women’s Foundation of Oregon “hopes to continue to provide very specific tactical coaching and support for folks to create workplaces that are more equitable going forward, kind of informed by the meltdown that they’ve gone through in the last six months,” Evans said.
Oregon’s new Equal Pay Act, which went into effect in 2019, addresses pay disparities by asking workers for salary history and making it easier for Oregonians to sue if they have been the victim of discrimination.
Yet, Evan said Oregon will not see a meaningful change in the gender pay gap until the state makes child care more accessible. Many Oregon women cannot join the labor force due to a lack of affordable caregiving options.
Likewise, during the pandemic, men have experienced the lack of child care options, Evans pointed out. She hopes that this will inspire change in the child care industry, taking a card from Ginsburg’s playbook of targeting gender inequality against both men and women.
Ginsburg wasn’t perfect, Evan said, but the late justice did embrace growth and understand how to play the long game of creating systemic change.
“She knew how oppression worked and how it would sort of ebb and flow,” Evans said. “And that it would always impact those already experiencing oppression the most.”
Evans said that looking to those already being oppressed for leadership gives her hope of addressing injustices like the gender wage and wealth gap.
“These inequities are all from systems that are not well designed, and that shows up in the workplace in a whole number of ways,” Evans said. “But it also gives me hope because if we designed our way into them, we can design our way out of this.”
Karin Power, Oregon House of Representatives
Ginsburg’s defense of women’s rights went far beyond the courtroom. While she was at the American Civil Liberties Union, before she became a justice, the Supreme Court ruled that pregnancy discrimination did not count as sex discrimination in General Electric Co. v. Gilbert (1976).
In response, Ginsburg helped form the Coalition to End Discrimination Against Pregnant Workers and called for legislators to amend the law. This resulted in the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, an amendment to Title VII establishing pregnancy discrimination in the workplace as unlawful sex discrimination.
More than 40 years later, Oregon Rep. Karin Power (D-Milwaukie) sought to expand on the rights of pregnant women in Oregon workplaces. In 2019, she gained bipartisan support on acts granting pregnancy and breastfeeding accommodations in the workplace.
Previously, Oregon had no codified pregnancy accommodations and allocated workers only 30 minutes every four hours to pump breast milk. As Oregon’s youngest-mom legislator, Power knew these laws were not sufficient for most women.
“I thought, I don’t know anybody who could easily go four hours without pumping when you’ve got a new baby who’s eating all the time,” Power said. “And I know plenty of women who need longer than 30 minutes to pump.”
Now, Oregon workers have expanded protections against pregancy-related discrimination, and employers must provide a reasonable amount of time for employees — which is unpaid — to express milk, unless an undue-hardship exemption applies.
“(Accommodations) look different for each person who’s pregnant,” Power said. “But we put in a process by which they can ask for those, and a process by which the employer is going to have to analyze and comply with those similar to disability accommodations.”
Power garnered unanimous, bipartisan support for the new protections in part because of Oregon’s high number of female politicians, she said. Compared to other states, Oregon has the third-largest percentage of female state legislators, at 42.2%, and is one of only a handful of states to elect a female governor.
Power said that women like Ginsburg helped pave the path for women to hold office and fight against gender discrimination in the workplace.
“Trailblazers like RBG helped set the legal precedent for these things to become possible,” Power said. “And it’s policymakers who follow up on it, with the help of advocates and parents, who put them into practice.
Christel Allen, NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon
Ginsburg was a fervent supporter of the legal right to abortion, which is now at risk of being overturned in her absence on the Supreme Court. Although she defended Roe v. Wade throughout her tenure, she was critical of the landmark ruling because it was based on the right to privacy instead of a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Ginsburg had hoped to expand women’s reproductive freedoms beyond Roe, as do many advocates in Oregon.
Christel Allen, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, is working to expand access to reproductive health care in the state and defend the legal right to abortion across the county.
“Even as a very politically engaged kid, I never wanted to be president. I always wanted to be RBG,” Allen said.
As a pro-choice advocacy organization, NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon is founded on Roe v. Wade, but it advocates for the spectrum of reproductive rights.
“Having to defend that right (to legal abortion) often takes up so much of our time and resources, and it’s important, but when I say it’s the foundation of our movement, it really is just the foundation,” Allen said.
Allen, who became the first woman of color to lead NARAL in July, prioritizes addressing disparities in reproductive health care. While Oregon is the only state to have no legal restrictions on abortion, some communities still do not access these services.
Oregon’s Reproductive Health Equity Act of 2017 enshrined Roe v. Wade into law and gave undocumented immigrants the legal right to free reproductive services. Funding streams for these services are not connected with any federal programs, so undocumented people are safe to share their immigration status.
Yet, these communities rarely take advantage of these free services. Allen attributes this to a culture of fear among immigrant communities that has made its way down from the federal level. Allen credits part of that fear to the new public-charge rule, which penalizes immigrants for receiving public benefits, including health care through Medicaid.
NARAL plans to address these access issues, as well as cultural barriers.
“We need to make sure that we are providing education and information (on these services) and getting that in the hands of as many people as we can in culturally responsive ways,” Allen said.
Other pressures include limited service by religiously affiliated providers, Allen said, and the Oregon Health Authority’s having opted out of Title X funding because, in 2019, President Donald Trump banned all grant recipients from discussing abortion options with patients.
NARAL hopes to build support for the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act, which would lift the Hyde Amendment and expand abortion access to indigenous people, federal workers and veterans, among others.
Though, for now, NARAL is focusing its energy on honoring Ginsburg and fulfilling her dying wish: that she not be replaced until after the November election. Oregonians can join a rapid response team to work towards postponing the nomination by driving calls to senators and reaching voters in critical battleground states.
Allen and her organization hope to prevent the possibility that Roe v. Wade is overturned, which would trigger anti-abortion laws in states across the country.
As Allen puts it, “We won’t have true reproductive freedom, true reproductive justice in Oregon until everyone has access to those services.”