A state senator, an 84-year-old retiree, and a Supreme Court justice. National fights this week for women's rights, racial justice, and sexual equality had one thing in common: they were fought by powerful women who refused to sit down and shut up.
The end of the Defense of Marriage Act is one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions of this term, and this victory for LGBT rights would not have been possible without Edith Windsor. Windsor’s wife and partner of 40 years, Thea Speyer, died in 2009. If Windsor's spouse had been a man, she would have owed no estate taxes; but because she had a wife, Windsor was left with a $300,000 tax bill. Windsor sued, arguing that DOMA violated the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor.
"We had every right to win. I thought our arguments were sound and everyone else’s were insane," she said.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a part of the majority that overturned DOMA, but on Tuesday she was the voice of dissent against the court’s ruling that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Ginsburg, a former ACLU lawyer, is one of the court’s strongest civil rights and social justice backers, a stance that could not have been clearer in her scathing dissent against what she called the “demolition of the VRA.”
Ginsburg compared the long battle against racial discrimination in voting to “battling the Hydra.” The VRA was “one of the most consequential, efficacious, and amply justified exercises of federal legislative power in our Nation’s history.” Moreover, she wrote: “The court makes no genuine attempt to engage with the massive legislative record that Congress assembled,” when it reauthorized the VRA in 2006.
The Voting Rights case was not the only one of this term on which Ginsburg’s opinion was part of a heated exchange. On Monday, Justice Samuel Alito visibly mocked her as she read her dissent in a workplace discrimination case. Despite the obvious gesture of disrespect, Ginsburg continued undeterred and called on Congress to “correct this court’s wayward interpretations.”
Ginsburg's fierce words and refusal to be intimidated have inspired a new generation of fans to pay tribute to her jurisprudence. Chief Justice John Roberts is unlikely to end up on a t-shirt after next year's term.
In Texas, Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis also endured mocking and disrespectful colleagues as she refused to let Republicans roll back women’s rights. In a breath-taking demonstration of legislative power, she used the filibuster to single-handedly block a bill that would have closed off access to safe abortions throughout much of her state.
As she tweeted on Tuesday before she began speaking, “The leadership may not want to listen to TX women, but they will have to listen to me.”
Davis, a second-term Democrat from Fort Worth, was the last line of defense against Republican efforts to ban all abortions in the state after 20 weeks of pregnancy. She filibustered for more than 10 hours, talking about how she relied on Planned Parenthood for health care as an uninsured 19-year-old single mother and told the stories of other Texas women. Despite multiple attempts to stop her filibuster on procedural grounds, she spoke long enough to delay a vote on the bill until after the end of the special session, killing the bill in this session. Gov. Perry announced Wednesday afternoon that he would call for a second special session to begin July 1 that will deal with the abortion legislation.
This is not the first time Davis has had to stand up to intimidation; she was nearly redistricted out of office in 2011, and during her 2012 reelection campaign, someone threw a Molotov cocktail at her office.
Edith Windsor called her victory one for “those whose hopes and dreams have been constricted” because they were afraid to speak up and be honest about their identities. In the wake of the Texas Senate bill’s defeat, Wendy Davis said the women of her state “were asking for their voices to be heard.” The results, like Davis and Windsor and Ginsburg, “speak for themselves.”