Work + Growth

Trailblazers in the Law: Women Who Broke Down Barriers and Cleared the Path for Future Generations

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not only one of the most revered Supreme Court justices in history, but also a pop culture icon
  • Gloria Allred is a ferocious defender of victims of sexual violence and a fearless women’s rights activist who has been an important advocate of the #MeToo movement
  • Sonia Sotomayor’s groundbreaking career and remarkable rise from South Bronx projects to the Supreme Court is an inspiration to younger generations of Latinas

Despite having radically different backgrounds and upbringings, Sonia Sotomayor, Gloria Allred, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have something in common.

All three of them are trailblazers—pioneering women who had to break numerous glass ceilings on their way to becoming prominent attorneys—Supreme Court justices in the case of Ginsburg and Sotomayor—and nationally celebrated figures. Through their success, Allred, Sotomayor, and Ginsburg have opened the doors of equality and opportunity to a new wave of women lawyers and empowered young women to dream big and persevere in the face of obstacles and discrimination. These women are more than just remarkable attorneys and jurists. They are women’s rights activists, progressive icons, feminists, cultural rock stars, and inspirations to women looking to similarly pave their own unique paths.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

A pop culture icon, the subject of a biopic and a documentary, an early champion of gender equality, and one of the most prolific Supreme Court justices of the past century, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a living legend.

Before rising to the Supreme Court and attaining celebrity status among younger people, Ginsburg was a young law student at Columbia University, where she was one of the only female students in a class of five hundred. When she was unable to find work in corporate law firms because she was a woman, Jewish, and a mother, Ginsburg ultimately decided to work for the ACLU. Described by many legal scholars as the “Thurgood Marshall of women’s rights,” Ginsburg helped co-found the Women’s Rights Project and led hundreds of cases aimed at overturning discriminatory laws and statutes. She sought to dismantle laws that on the surface appeared beneficial to women, but in fact reinforced the notion that women needed to be dependent on men.

In 1993, Ginsburg was nominated and appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton. In her time on the Supreme Court, she has cemented herself as a champion of all forms of women’s rights and all forms of equality. Between leading the charge for legalizing same-sex marriage, defending women’s rights to abortion, and eliminating discrimination in the workplace, Ginsburg has become a leader of the progressive movement.

Nonetheless, Ginsburg’s influence transcends her role as a Supreme Court justice. In the past few years, Ginsburg has become an Internet celebrity and a feminist icon. Ginsburg has hundreds of fan accounts devoted to her on Twitter and Facebook, is the popular subject of memes, and has been dubbed the Notorious RBG a play on the rapper the Notorious B.I.G. Ginsburg’s physical resilience at 86 and her commanding presence on the court continues to inspire younger generations of women who see her as both a cultural superstar and a role model.

Gloria Allred

A leading voice of the #MeToo movement, Gloria Allred is one of the most prominent lawyers in America and a strident champion of sexual assault and gender discrimination victims. Never one to back down from a political or legal opponent, she once sent a chastity belt to a California state senator who had proposed anti-abortion legislation. Allred is well known for bringing cases of sexual harassment against the likes of Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Anthony Weiner, and Tiger Woods, among others. While Allred has gained notoriety due to her resourcefulness and aggression inside the courtroom and in the media, she is also an unabashed feminist and women’s rights activist. Throughout her career, she has brought much needed awareness to the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses and has empowered women to speak up against sexual assault and hold men in power accountable.

Since the time she was a young law student at Loyola University Law School, Allred was animated by a passion for social justice. This passion is fueled and informed by her life experiences as a young single mother who had to take care of a baby while attending college and the trauma she endured after being raped on a vacation to Mexico in 1966. Afraid that people would not believe her, she was reluctant to tell her story until years after the incident took place. Ultimately, however, she not only found the courage to talk about her own traumatic experience but also sought to help other women speak up about sexual assault and abuse. Allred’s ferocity and passion in standing up for the rights of victims is not just her professional mission but is rooted in her own deeply painful story.

In addition to representing women who have been victims of sexual assault, Allred has spearheaded numerous civil rights lawsuits aimed at reversing workplace discrimination, eliminating sexist wrongful termination practices, and protecting the equal rights of the LGBTQ community. Allred’s tireless work ethic—she has not taken a vacation in over thirty five years—her media savviness, and her willingness to speak truth to men in power have made her one of the most influential advocates of the #MeToo movement, a badass inside the courtroom, and hero of women’s rights activists across the country.

Which women lawyers do you find inspiring, and why? Think of a woman at your firm, a relative, or a mentor you admire.

Sonia Sotomayor

The third woman appointed to the Supreme Court and the first ever Hispanic justice, Sonia Sotomayor is a trailblazer in every sense of the word. Born to Puerto Rican parents in the South Bronx, Sotomayor excelled in school and became the first person in her family to attend college. After graduating Princeton University, she went to Yale Law School where she had to navigate an unfamiliar environment and was one of only a handful of Latina women. Unlike most of her classmates, Sotomayor grew up in a housing project and worked extremely hard to create the types of opportunities her parents did not have. These life experiences not only shaped her legal approach but made her more aware of her “unique perspective as a Latina woman in a world that sometimes looks at her with suspicion.”

Finding a passion for social justice after law school, Sotomayor worked as an assistant district attorney in New York before going into corporate law. In that position, Sotomayor developed an empathetic legal approach that centered around the real-world impact cases have on the lives of individuals. When she was nominated to be a federal district judge in 1991 and then a Supreme Court justice by President Obama in 2009, she took this approach to the bench. Judging cases on the Supreme Court, Sotomayor does not see cases as the abstract clash of judicial philosophies but rather seeks to understand the immediate impact and consequences that decisions will have on everyday people.

In recent years, Sotomayor has become one of the most outspoken justices on the Supreme Court and one of the leading voices of the liberal wing of the court. Between standing up for the rights of criminal defendants and immigrants, arguing against Trump’s travel ban, and defending civil rights, Sotomayor has become a progressive hero in her own right. While she hasn’t attained the same level of popularity as RBG, Sotomayor is just as much of a dynamo.

Inside the courtroom, Sotomayor is not afraid to confront her more conservative justices when she disagrees with them and is forceful in articulating her own unique perspective as a person of color and a woman. Outside the courtroom, she is an activist and role model for her community in the South Bronx. Her journey from a housing project to the Supreme Court has not only shaped her own world view, but has inspired countless women of color.

The groundbreaking careers of Gloria Allred, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are compelling examples of the power of perseverance and hard work in the face of discrimination, sexism, and other obstacles. While they each navigated their own path to success and faced distinct challenges along the way, all three women fought to defend women’s rights, combat discrimination, and create opportunities and equality for women where it did not previously exist. Their work on behalf of women’s causes and judicial activism has made them all heroes.