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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Friday, September 18, is mourned by millions as a trailblazer who paved the way for women’s rights and gender equality. But there’s a less known aspect of her legal work that has had profound consequences in the world of finance: if you are a woman who holds a credit card, you owe it in large part to the efforts of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Until the mid-1970s, banks and other financial institutions denied married women in the U.S. credit cards or loans in their own name, and single women also had trouble getting credit.
Enter the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, or age in credit transactions.”
This means if you apply for a credit card or loan, you can only be considered based on factors directly related to your creditworthiness. That seems obvious today, but it was not 50 years ago. A body of jurisprudence favorable to equal rights — much of it stemming from legal work directed by Ginsburg when she was an attorney — began accumulating in the early 1970s and adding momentum to the fight for equality.
That credit card act, signed into law by President Gerald Ford on October 28, 1974, was in some ways the culmination of that work. Without it, women would not have been able to access one of the basic tools of financial independence.
Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1993, but had long been a major figure in the legal battle for women’s rights, before joining the federal bench in 1980. By then she had already helped argue for equality in front of the Court, with great success.
In Reed v. Reed — the landmark 1971 case highlighted in the 2018 film On the Basis of Sex — Ginsburg co-wrote a brief arguing that a provision of Idaho state law which said men were to be preferred to women in appointing the administrators of an estate violated the Constitution. The court agreed, finding unanimously that dissimilar treatment, “on the basis of sex,” between men and women was unconstitutional.
As the National Women’s Law Center notes, the verdict “marked the first time in history that the Court applied the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down a law that discriminated against women.” It was a watershed moment, without which that 1974 law would likely not have been possible.
After the Reed case, Ginsburg began directing the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, as NPR notes. The group participated in the vast majority of gender discrimination cases decided by the Supreme Court between 1969 and 1980, when Ginsburg joined the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Once she got to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg added notable cases to her list of victories for equality, including 1996’s United States v. Virginia, when the court struck down the admissions policy at Virginia Military Institute, which permitted only men to enroll. Her majority opinion stated qualified women could not be denied admission.
Those Supreme Court cases may well become what she is most remembered for. But many Americans carry in their wallets a memento of Justice Ginsburg’s legacy in the form of a humble credit card — one that they would not have been able to get if a female attorney from Brooklyn had not succeeded, 50 years ago, in persuading powerful men that equality stretched to all areas of life.