RBG Imparted This To Plaintiff In Gender Equality Case: ‘It’s All Right To Be A Hero’

Sharron Cohen

Sharron Cohen (second from left) with her husband David Cohen, and son Nathan Cohen with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the steps of the Supreme Court building in 1999.

Sharron Frontiero was a young lieutenant in the Air Force when she first filed a lawsuit against the federal government on the basis of sex. It later came to the attention of a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who signed onto the case in 1972, setting up her first appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Frontiero, now Sharron Cohen, was the plaintiff in Frontiero v. Richardson, in which she sought a dependent’s allowance for her husband. That same benefit is owed to wives of male members of the military according to federal law.

“I was married, and I expected a housing allowance and I wasn’t eligible for it — because I was a woman,” Sharron, 73, said in a recent StoryCorps interview recorded with her son Nathan, 41.

Sharron began her legal journey with lawyer Joe Levin, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. After an initial loss in courts at the state level, Levin teamed up with Ginsburg and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project to take the matter to the highest court in the U.S.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an up-and-coming lawyer at the ACLU,” Sharron said. “It was the first time she argued in front of the Supreme Court. And it turned out to be a prominent case in women’s rights history.”

Ginsburg joined the case in 1972, and later represented the ACLU in the amicus curiae supporting brief when it went to the Supreme Court.

Sharron wasn’t present at the Supreme Court oral arguments, she told her son, “I didn’t know I could be.”

Frontiero won the landmark case in 1973, which ruled military benefits could not be distributed differently based on gender.

It wasn’t until 1999 that Cohen got to meet Ginsburg, face-to-face, on the steps of the Supreme Court building.

“She was incredibly tiny, and she walked as if she was walking on broken glass.” said Sharron. “I introduced myself as ‘Frontiero v. Richardson.’ And you stepped up and said, ‘and I’m son of Frontiero v. Richardson.’ ”

As Nathan recalled, the Supreme Court justice invited the pair to her chambers.

“Her office was just bedecked with books. Papers everywhere but a sense of organized chaos,” he said. “She was such a diminutive human and then when she spoke, everybody just sort of came to a hush. I was just stunned by her brilliance and power that she wielded in such a tiny frame.”

Sharron remembered her “tiny voice.”

“The silence of her was like an engine at the middle of the universe,” she said.

Sharron remembered the words of wisdom Ginsburg imparted to her as she and her son were getting ready to leave their meeting: “She stepped up and hugged me and said, ‘It’s all right to be a hero.’ ”

“She used to characterize me as humble and self-effacing, which I am not. It’s that I never owned the part in Frontiero v. Richardson that other people wanted me to own. I never felt that I did it. I walked into a lawyer’s office and said, ‘Help me get my money.’ And I think that she was trying to tell me that it was OK to own my part.”

“It has taken me a long time but I’m proud of the part I played in it,” Sharron said.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Abe Selby. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

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