Richard Swerdlow: Flying With RBG

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

 (Richard Swerdlow)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg fervently believed that women’s rights are men’s rights, too. Richard Swerdlow knows what she was talking about.

Thirty years ago, I worked as an airline flight attendant, pouring drinks at 25,000 feet. Thank you, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for the opportunity.

Because without judges like RBG, I never could have landed that job.

On the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg’s defining cause was gender equality in employment. And there wasn't much gender equality among airline crews. Until the 1970s, airlines employed only women young, pretty stewardesses wearing uniforms of mini-skirts and go-go boots. It was legal to fire stewardesses at age 32, or for marriage, pregnancy, even gaining weight.

But this changed with a 1971 decision, courts ruling a man could carry a tray as well as a woman. Stewardesses became “flight attendants,” with men working beside them. And though Ruth Bader Ginsburg wasn't part of this ruling, her legal advocacy for gender equality in employment resulted in doors opening for both women and men.


Justice Ginsberg hoped to, she wrote, “free our daughters and sons to achieve whatever their talents equipped them to accomplish, with no artificial barriers blocking their way.”

Judges like Ruth Bader Ginsburg empowered all of us with freedom to make career choices. Ending gender discrimination in employment didn't just allow women access to jobs denied to them. It also allowed men to take jobs denied to them at that time. Companies were compelled to hire male telephone operators, nurses, secretaries and yes flight attendants.

All her life, Justice Ginsburg opposed employment discrimination towards both women and men, describing “the equal citizenship stature of women and men as a fundamental constitutional principal.”

After her death, many have praised RBG's legal arguments for women's rights. But she would have pointed out women’s rights are really equal rights. Justice Ginsburg understood when employment is denied to anyone on the basis of sex, there are fewer opportunities for everyone.

So, though I haven't poured a drink in the sky in decades, here's to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We all fly a little higher because of her.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow is a San Francisco teacher.