One day in June 1999, Sharron Cohen stood nervously on steps of the U.S. Supreme Court facing a bank of photographers and lawyers. Beside her, appearing equally uncomfortable, was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“Do you enjoy this?” Cohen recalls whispering to Ginsburg.
“I mostly work,” Ginsburg muttered back, drily.
The occasion – a photo for a calendar celebrating the Women in Military Service for America Memorialin Washington, D.C. – was the first time the women met, but not the first time their paths had crossed.
Nearly 30 years earlier, Cohen was known as Sharron Frontiero, a young U.S. Air Force lieutenant in Montgomery, Ala., whose sex discrimination lawsuit became the first case Ginsburg ever argued before the Supreme Court.
That 1973 case, Frontiero v. Richardson, became a landmark decision. It’s considered the first successful sex discrimination case filed against the federal government and altered the legal landscape for future gender equity cases.
From left: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sharron Cohen, David Cohen and Nathan Cohen at the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1999.
After the photos were taken, Ginsburg invited a small group including Cohen and her family to her chambers where Ginsburg discussed the personal meaning of some of the biggest cases in her career. As the group got ready to leave, Ginsburg hugged Cohen and said quietly: “It’s all right to be a hero.”
Cohen, now in her 70s, still gets emotional remembering the moment. Ginsburg, she recalled in an interview with Reckon, understood Cohen’s misgivings about being called a crusader and pioneer.
“I’m uncomfortable because I was just a naive 23-year-old who stumbled into a lawyer’s office,” Cohen said. “But for her to say, basically, it’s OK to own your courage — that was really astounding to me.”
Ginsburg died Friday at age 87. She spent her career, including nearly three decades on the U.S. Supreme Court, fighting against gender discrimination.
In the process, Ginsburg formed life-long bonds with those like Cohen and others who fought those battles alongside her.
“I was not political at all,” as a young woman, Cohen said. “But I became a feminist because of this case.”
In the winter of 1970, a furious Sharron Frontiero walked through the doors of the tiny Montgomery law office of Levin & Dees.
Her superiors at nearby Maxwell Air Force Base, where she worked as a physical therapist, repeatedly refused to grant her the housing allowance and medical benefits automatically given to married male service members.
That meant she made less in wages than men of equal rank. Instead, the Air Force insisted she had to prove that her husband depended on her for half his living expenses, a stipulation not required of men.
Cohen grew up in a working–class family and put herself through school, becoming one of the first in her family to graduate from college. Her husband, Joseph, whom she married in 1969, was still a student. The full housing allowance would be a significant financial help.
Sharron Cohen, then a lieutenant and physical therapist in the U.S. Air Force, 1972
“I wanted some lawyer to write a letter that would unlock this payment for me,” Cohen recalled. “I was like every other working-class person. I wanted my money and I wanted to be treated fairly and I got angry when I wasn’t.”
Attorney Joe Levin, then 26, said she’d have to sue.
Levin saw the potential for Frontiero’s lawsuit to change the legal landscape regarding sex discrimination. By 1971, Levin and his partner, Morris Dees, had founded a new civil rights organization in Montgomery, the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The next year, Levin unsuccessfully presented the Frontiero case to a federal district court in Montgomery. Cohen was “stupefied” by the loss and they appealed the case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the meantime, the ACLU and its new Women’s Rights Project division heard about the case and asked to be involved. One of the division’s founders, Ginsburg, got on the phone with Levin to discuss it.
Over next several months, Ginsburg and Levin argued about the best strategy to present during oral arguments. Levin wanted to argue the case more narrowly, believing that would be the best way to win for his client. Ginsburg and her colleagues wanted more control over the case and to convince the court that sex discrimination deserved the same legal scrutiny as race discrimination.
“I respected what she wanted to do,” Levin said. In the end, the ACLU filed a separate amicus brief and Levin gave Ginsburg 10 minutes of the half-hour each side has to present its case at the high court.
The night before the arguments, Levin had dinner on Capitol Hill with Ginsburg and her husband, Marty.
“Marty was hilarious, one of the funniest guys I can ever remember being around,” he said. “(Ginsburg) had such a calm demeanor and was obviously very smart. It was a lovely evening.”
The next day, on Jan. 17, 1973, Levin, then 29, and Ginsburg, then 39, argued their first case before the Supreme Court.
Four months later, the court ruled 8-1 that the Air Force policy violated Cohen’s rights. Specifically, the court’s majority found it violated the due process clause in the Fifth Amendment, which says the federal government can deprive no one of life, liberty or property without due process of the law.
In the ruling, Justice William J. Brennan wrote: “There can be no doubt that our Nation has had a long and unfortunate history of sex discrimination. Traditionally, such discrimination was rationalized by an attitude of ‘romantic paternalism’ which, in practical effect, put women, not on a pedestal, but in a cage.”
Sharron Cohen in 2017.
Cohen wasn’t in court when the decision was handed down; she didn’t realize she could attend. By then, she had moved on with her life. She and Joseph divorced. She retired from the Air Force after four years, remarried and had a son, Nathan. She and David Cohen, her husband of more than 40 years, now live in Massachusetts and enjoy spending time outdoors and with their grandchildren and family.
She still has friends in Montgomery, including Levin, and occasionally visits. She also speaks publicly about her case and its impact on gender equity.
After their first meeting in 1999, Cohen and Ginsburg stayed in touch. They exchanged holiday cards and occasional notes. Ginsburg would sometimes send Cohen a small gift, like a leather Supreme Court bookmark or a copy of a speech she’d given that mentioned Cohen’s case, the coffee cup rings still visible on the pages.
One year, after Cohen told Ginsburg in a letter that her daughter-in-law, who’d had a devastating miscarriage, was pregnant again, a small package arrived from Ginsburg. It was a newborn T-shirt bearing the Supreme Court seal and Ginsburg’s initials, the words “Supreme Court Grandclerk” underneath.
The two met a handful more times over the years.
“The single clearest impression I have of the woman was that … I had never been in a room with someone whose intelligence was that magnetic,” Cohen said.
“She operated from this center of silence that was so profound. Somebody would ask her a question and she would remain entirely still, through the entire length of the question, no matter how long it was. Then when the question was over, there would be one, two, three, four beats. Then she would open her mouth and an entire answer would come out. Perfectly correct grammar — you could practically see the punctuation in it.”
Earlier this year, another reunion was scheduled to take place.
At Ginsburg’s request, the justice would join Levin and Cohen on a panel at the annual conference of the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, but the coronavirus pandemic caused organizers to cancel the event.
Sharron Cohen, pictured in 2020.
“Sharron and I were both so looking forward to it,” Levin said. “We were especially happy it was (Ginsburg’s) idea. It was going to be a great reunion.”
He said he was devastated to hear of her death Friday, particularly as it fell the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It’s a poignant date for Levin who, like Ginsburg, is Jewish.
Cohen still identifies as “deeply, deeply feminist” and worries about the coming political battle over the filling of Ginsburg’s seat, and what it might mean for the issues she cares about.
“It scares me as much as it scares a lot of people,” she said. “And it isn’t worthy of her legacy. She didn’t owe us anything. She gave everything.”