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

Dec 18, 2020
Originally published on December 20, 2020 11:59 pm

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.

A young Lt. Sharron Frontiero (now Sharron Cohen) in her Air Force uniform in 1972.
Courtesy of Sharron Cohen

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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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. And today, a story about Ruth Bader Ginsburg's first appearance before the Supreme Court. The case was Frontiero v. Richardson. Recently, the plaintiff, Sharon Frontiero - now Sharron Cohen - talked about the case with her son, Nathan.

SHARRON COHEN: When I was 23, I was in the Air Force. I was married and expected a housing allowance. And I wasn't eligible for it because I was a woman. My lawyer was Joe Levin. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an up-and-coming lawyer at the ACLU. And it turned out to be a prominent case in women's rights history. But I wasn't there because I didn't know I could be.

NATHAN COHEN: Are you bitter about that?

S COHEN: No, I'm not. We were all so young. And many, many years later, I met Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the steps of the Supreme Court building. She was incredibly tiny. And she walked as if she was walking on broken glass. I introduced myself as Frontiero v. Richardson. And you stepped up and said, and I'm son of Frontiero v. Richardson.

N COHEN: I remember that she invited us to her chambers. Her office was just bedecked with books, papers everywhere, but a sense of organized chaos. 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.

S COHEN: And such a tiny voice. I mean, the silence of her was like an engine at the middle of the universe. But at the end of it, when we're getting ready to leave, 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. You know, I never felt that I did it. I walked into a lawyer's office and said, help me get my money. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRYAN COPELAND'S "ELEGIAC")

MARTIN: Sharron Cohen and her son Nathan. Their StoryCorps conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRYAN COPELAND'S "ELEGIAC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.