Susan Struck Was A Captain In The U.S. Air Force––Here's How RBG Fought For Her

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
We Need To Talk About Susan Struck
Scary Mommy and Ron Sachs/CNP/Bettmann/Getty

The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg cut Americans—particularly women—to the core for many reasons. In a year of turmoil where women and mothers are expected to give more than ever, manifesting extra hours in the day to homeschool their kids while still somehow earning the income their family relies on, RBG was a beacon of hope. Chief Justice Roberts referred to her as a “tireless and resolute champion of justice.” Barack Obama said she was a “warrior for gender equality.” And Kamala Harris gave a tribute to the late Supreme Court justice, saying that she’ll “always be a titan.”

She was small. But she was mighty.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was only the second woman to ever sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, and is known famously for being asked, “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” and responding with, “When there are nine.” Because, as she pointed out, there have been nine men on the bench throughout most of history, and “nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

RBG was the definition of tenacity. An NPR article reports that after being terminated from previous employments for being pregnant, she hid her second pregnancy by wearing her mother-in-law’s clothes so she could land a contract before her potential employer found out.

She was one of only a few female law students at Harvard Law School, and at one point was asked by the dean why she was taking up a place that “should go to a man.”

Still, she persisted, defying expectations and graduating at the top of her law school class. Despite her academic achievements, however, the doors to law firms were closed to women, and though recommended for a Supreme Court clerkship, she wasn’t even interviewed, the NPR article goes on to say.

Every time a door slammed in her face, Ruth Bader Ginsburg banged on it again, paving the way for future women, future mothers, future law students, to be able to pass through.

But because of her efforts to support and protect women’s rights, RBG is often associated with the always-heated debate on abortion.

While most of America was mourning the loss of a fierce, iconic feminist, those on the other side began throwing around terms like “baby killer” and supporting the replacement of Ginsburg on the Supreme Court with a conservative who isn’t “pro-abortion” (as if being “pro-abortion” is even a thing).

If you’ve heard these disparaging descriptions of the fierce, legendary Jewish lawyer from New York, you might want to hear the story of Susan Struck. And once you hear Susan’s story, you can then respond to ignorant accusations that Ginsburg was “pro-abortion” with evidence that no, she was not. She was pro-choice. As in protecting a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body.

Susan Struck was a captain in the U.S. Air Force serving in Vietnam. It was 1970, which was before Roe v. Wade, and which was (and many people don’t know this) a time when women were encouraged—or even mandated—to actually have abortions if they served in the military. Abortions that were by law, illegal, and by medical standards, unsafe — but somehow were allowed to happen on military bases. These unsafe and illegal abortions were the only option for women who became pregnant but wished to continue their service and their military careers. Because motherhood + military status were not simultaneous options for women in the ’70s.

Air Force nurse Captain Susan Struck holds her two day old baby, Tanya Marie, during a press conference at Madigan General Hospital, in Tacoma, Washington. Bettmann/Getty

“Air Force rules then were as clear as they were coercive: face immediate discharge unless the pregnancy was terminated,” The Guardian reports. “Keep your job or keep the pregnancy.”

Yeah. Let that sink in.

Struck initially planned to terminate the pregnancy, but after a dream about the baby calling her “Mommy,” she changed her mind. And with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s help, she fought to be able to even have that choice.

Because that’s what RBG believed in and fought for. She wasn’t a “baby killer” or “pro-abortion.” She was pro-women and pro-women’s rights. She knew firsthand what pregnancy meant for women, as it had cost her jobs and opportunities already in her own life. She knew firsthand what pregnancy could do to a woman’s career in the 1970s. And, what it could do to a woman’s body. To a woman’s life. Consequences and effects that only impacted women, even though none of these women got pregnant without a man’s sperm. And yet the careers of those contributing the sperm remained untouched.

Justice Ginsburg believed fervently that we should be allowed to choose what happens to our own bodies, our own careers, our own futures—all women, even women in the military. Even women like Susan Struck—who is alive today, in her 70s, and a self-described “Trumpist” and regular viewer of Fox News.

But here’s the thing—RBG didn’t champion liberal women’s rights. Or Democrat women’s rights. She advocated for all women, and if she were here today, she’d undoubtedly stand alongside Susan Struck, even if Struck donned a MAGA hat and held a Trump sign in her hand, and stay true to her word—that Susan Struck deserved the right to choose. As an honorable Supreme Court justice does.

When Struck’s pregnancy was discovered, the Air Force immediately discharged her—a decision she did not accept. “She did the American thing, Duke University law professor Neil Siegel says, “which was to go to court with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union to fend off the discharge.”

And it was through this process that she became linked to future Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was heading the Women’s Rights Project at the time.

Jeffrey Markowitz/Getty

Struck lucked out. Because RBG was a badass. And a phenomenal lawyer.

“Laws which disable women from full participation in the political, business and economic arenas are often characterized as ‘protective’ and beneficial,” she wrote in her lengthy brief on this case. “Those same laws applied to racial or ethnic minorities would readily be recognized as invidious and impermissible. The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage…”

Ginsburg argued that the only conspicuous difference between men and women was that “only women become pregnant; and if you subject a woman to disadvantageous treatment on the basis of her pregnant status … you would be denying her equal treatment under the law.”

Furthermore, she argued that no other potentially “disabling physical conditions” (i.e. a broken bone) resulted in a military discharge, and that male officers were not discharged upon becoming parents. Therefore, Susan Struck’s rights of equal protection, which she was guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, were being violated, according to RBG.

She was right. And she won. Even though it took years of fighting, ruined Struck’s career, and caused irreparable damage to her relationship with her daughter. In the end, though, the Air Force did waive Captain Struck’s discharge and changed the rule. Pregnancy was no longer a cause for automatic discharge.

Susan Struck’s story was one of the endless examples of why Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a fighter like no other. Why she—the first woman and first Jewish citizen in U.S. history to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol—was the truest definition we’ve ever had of the famous Shakespearean quote, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the ultimate breaker of ceilings—proving that women, specifically mothers, were just as capable as men of being successful, brilliant lawyers and serving at the highest legal office in our nation. And that no matter what, we should always have the right to make our own choices about our own education, our own careers, and our own bodies.

And for that, we will be forever grateful. And we will honor her charge by carrying the torch now, as she no longer can. By fighting to elect more women in leadership positions—in law, in politics, in business, and in rooms where decisions are being made. By protecting women’s rights to equal pay and equal career opportunities. And by allowing women to make their own choices about their own uteruses, rather than a bunch of men deciding for them—men who will never know what it’s like to have one.

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