What we learned about campaigning from Ruth Bader Ginsburg


We look back on the illustrious career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and explore the five things we learned from her inspiring work.

When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (known to many simply as RBG) passed away, our sadness was soon tempered by the thought of her iconic legacy and brilliance as a campaigner.

In her long and illustrious career, she transformed the status of women in America by securing greater women’s rights and gender equality in law. 

What was it about her approach and her character that made her so effective? RBG exemplified the key rules to good campaigning. Here are five things we can learn from her. 


1. Be clear on your campaign aim and your target

Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew from the very beginning of her career exactly what she wanted to achieve – equality for women.

Soon after graduating in law, she litigated key equality cases all the way to the Supreme Court, where she won five out of her six cases.

She also progressed from presenting cases to the Supreme Court to sitting as a Supreme Court Justice, where she was able to promote equality in the decisions of the USA’s highest legal body.

As campaigners, our starting point is deciding what we want to achieve and identifying who has the power to make the decision that will lead to success.

Failure at this stage is not uncommon and can be disastrous, but ensuring clarity of aim, and knowing who the decision maker is, means we don’t waste time and resources on the wrong campaign and targeting the wrong people.


2. List your resources and consider how best to use them

RBG was not one to take part in the popular women’s rights marches of the 1970s – that sort of campaigning just wasn’t her thing. Instead, she felt most comfortable using her superb legal mind and relying on her work ethic to achieve the change she wanted to see. These were her chosen assets and resources.

Successful campaigners take stock of what resources they have and think carefully about how best to use them.

Remember, many campaigns are won because of a sound strategy, a creative approach and clever marshalling of resources, rather than a professional budget.


3. Be strategic

For campaigners, being strategic means carefully considering how best to achieve the change you want to see.

RBG was strategic in the cases she fought. Her aim was to fight those examples that exposed the breadth and impact of discriminatory practices, while achieving life-changing benefits not just for her clients, but the whole of American society.

It was a stepped approach aimed at creating enduring change and it is generally agreed that she substantively changed the standing of women in the US today.

For campaigners, being strategic means carefully considering how best to achieve the change you want to see.

Do you have a compelling argument and evidence? Are there key dates you need to work to or which can provide a platform for the campaign (like International Women’s Day on 8 March)? How do you achieve leverage on the decision maker?

These are just some of the questions we need to consider before writing a campaign plan.


4. Be brave

When RBG was being assessed for the position of Supreme Court Justice (joining eight other Justices), she underwent a confirmation hearing with the US Senate.

In typically principled fashion, she decided to speak at length about abortion rights.

Her incredible speech was broadcast by news networks as abortion was (and remains) a particularly divisive subject in the US.

Nonetheless, RBG’s calmly presented argument won her the respect of the Senate and they elected her to the Supreme Court by 96 votes to three.

As campaigners we sometimes need to be smart about the language we use to ensure that our arguments are understood.

However, these considerations should not stop us speaking out, or showing the strength of popular feeling on an issue.

Indeed, if you know the decision maker’s position is ideological, and they hold an elected position, then a show of public support for your campaign is often the only way to shift them, or at least make them think twice.

5. Perseverance

Perseverance is crucial for campaigners because there is no ‘silver bullet’ – no guarantee of success.

In her 80s, RBG became famous for never giving up on key points of principle.

If she disagreed with a majority decision by her fellow Justices at the Supreme Court because of such a principle, she would persevere by issuing one of her ‘dissenting opinions’.

These were her compelling papers addressing why she believed the Court was wrong, and one of these papers later inspired the equal pay law in America.

Perseverance is crucial for campaigners because there is no ‘silver bullet’ – no guarantee of success.

Sometimes, decision makers or indeed society is simply not ready to do what we want, but that isn’t to say that further campaigning will not succeed.

Originally published by ActionAid UK on 25 September 2020.