An Extraordinary Woman, A Remarkable Life
“For women, she was the most important legal advocate in American history. She changed the way the law sees gender.”—Abbe Gluck, Yale Law School professor and former clerk of Justice Ginsburg.
Joan Ruth Bader—the woman who would become a trailblazer, a warrior, and a tireless champion of equal rights—the Notorious RBG—was born at the height of the Great Depression in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Her dad, Nathan Bader, was a Jewish immigrant from Russia who became a furrier and haberdasher. Her mom, the former Celia Amster, worked in a garment factory.
Celia Bader was a driving force in the future Supreme Court Justice’s life, instilling in her the value of independence and a love of academics. Having graduated from high school at 15, Ms. Bader worked to help put her brother through Cornell University instead of going to college, herself. To help ensure a different outcome for her daughter, the future Justice’s mom saved $8,000 for a college fund from money given to her by her husband for personal expenses.
In June 1993, Judge Ginsburg paid tribute to her mother as she stood with President Clinton in the Rose Garden for the announcement of her Supreme Court Nomination, offering these words. “It is to my mother, Celia Amster Bader, the bravest and strongest person I have ever known, who was taken from me much too soon. I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons.”[i]
“I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability.”—Ruth Bader Ginsburg
As a girl, Justice Ginsburg was known as “Kiki”—a smart, competitive, and popular girl who played the cello—an excellent student who was also a cheerleader and baton twirler.[ii]
Persevering through challenge—a hallmark of Justice Ginsburg’s life—asserted itself at a young age when tragedy struck twice. Justice Ginsburg’s older sister, Marilyn, died of meningitis at age eight, when Justice Ginsburg was 14 months old, and her mother died of cervical cancer the day before Justice Ginsburg’s high school graduation. Unable to attend her graduation ceremony, Justice Ginsburg’s teachers arrived at her house, bringing with them her many medals and awards.
As for the college fund? Graduating near the top of her class and having attained a full scholarship to Cornell, Justice Ginsberg didn’t need it. She gave most of the money to her dad.
“Profound challenges fueled her fierce determination to accomplish her dreams and achieve justice for others.”
—Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Dean, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study; Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law, Harvard Law School; Professor of History, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
And so began a life that would be characterized by resilience, brilliance, and perseverance. Ruth Bader went on to Cornell University, graduating at the top of her class in 1954. Freshman year, she went on a blind date with sophomore, Martin Ginsburg, “the only boy I ever met,” she recounted, “who cared that I had a brain.” Martin Ginsburg became the love of the future Justice’s life. Their marriage has been described as a true lifelong romantic, intellectual, and parenting partnership. The couple got engaged during Justice Ginsburg’s junior year and they married shortly after graduation. From there, Ruth Bader Ginsburg balanced hard-won career achievement, motherhood, and marriage in a world that was blind to the concept—and years before “life balance” became part of our lexicon.
“You can’t have it all, all at once.”— Ruth Bader Ginsburg
I write this with admiration for a woman who was driven to excellence and a life of accomplishment—for exemplifying a balance of selflessness and determination in life and career—and for fighting to make justice and opportunity applied equally under the law.
- Justice Ginsburg briefly interrupted her education shortly after her marriage to Martin Ginsburg when he was drafted for two years of military service. The couple moved to Oklahoma, where he was stationed. There, Justice Ginsburg achieved a high score on a civil service exam and was on her way to a job at the local Social Security office. When she told them she was pregnant, she was not allowed to go for training and was put into a typist position.
- When Martin Ginsburg’s military service ended, the couple headed back east to attend Harvard Law School. Now a young mom, Justice Ginsburg was one of nine females out of a class of more than 500. The women were asked by the school’s then-Dean how they could justify taking a spot that would have gone to a man.
- During Justice Ginsburg’s first year of law school, Martin was diagnosed with testicular cancer. To help him keep up with his studies, Justice Ginsburg attended his classes and gathered classmates’ notes, typing them up for him to study. Then at around 2 a.m., she’d prepare for her own classes for the next day.[iii]
- Justice Ginsburg became the first female member of the Harvard Law Review.
- Martin recovered, and got a job with a New York law firm. Justice Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School, again made the law review, and tied for the top spot in her graduating class.
- Female, Jewish, and a mom, Justice Ginsburg had difficulties finding work. She was recommended for a Supreme Court Clerkship but not even interviewed.[iv] Justice Ginsburg eventually got a clerkship in New York when her mentor and law professor promised the judge that if she couldn’t do the work, he would provide someone who could. The professor regularly sent his best students to this judge—who was also told that if he didn’t take Justice Ginsburg, the professor would never send him a clerk again. The clerkship was a success—Justice Ginsburg was kept for two years, rather than the usual one year.
- Justice Ginsburg was the second woman to become a faculty member of Rutger’s Law School. Learning that her salary was lower than those of her male colleagues, she joined an equal pay campaign with other female teachers, which resulted in raises for the women[v] Justice Ginsburg hid her second pregnancy while at Rutgers by wearing her mother-in-law’s clothes—and her contract was renewed before the baby was born.
- Justice Ginsburg joined Columbia University, becoming the first female professor there to earn tenure.
- In addition to teaching, Justice Ginsburg volunteered to handle discrimination cases for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She was also a member of the ACLU’s Board of Directors and general counsel. During her time with the organization, Justice Ginsburg argued more than 300 gender-discrimination cases, six of which were before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1978. She won five out of the six cases. Among those argued were complaints by public school teachers who had lost their jobs when they became pregnant. Another case, known as the “grandmother brief,” eventually became her first Supreme Court victory. The brief that she filed inventoried all the ways in which the law served to reinforce society’s oppression of women.[vi]
- In 1972, Justice Ginsburg became the director of the newly-created ACLU Women’s Rights Project.
- Justice Ginsburg didn’t miss a day of oral arguments after colon surgery in 1999, which was accompanied by chemotherapy and radiation treatment. She also returned to the bench less than three weeks after having surgery for early-stage pancreatic cancer. In 2010, Justice Ginsburg had planned to have another justice read the summary she had prepared—it was the last day of the court’s term, and her beloved husband, Martin, had passed the day before. Instead, Justice Ginsburg appeared on the bench, delivering her opinion—saying it was what Marty would have wanted.[vii]
- Justice Ginsburg will be the first woman, as well as the first person of Jewish faith, to lie in state in the US Capitol, an unusual honor for a Supreme Court justice.
“A gender line…helps to keep women not on a pedestal, but in a cage.”— Ruth Bader Ginsburg
She has been called the Thurgood Marshall of the women’s rights movement. To that, Justice Ginsburg often responded that her work did not require risking her life, as Justice Marshall had faced in the segregated South. While that may be the case, Justice Ginsburg’s legacy is that of someone who fought for gender and racial equality, workers’ rights, and the separation of church and state.
While she was a part of majority decisions, Justice Ginsburg was known as “the great dissenter”—in fact, she would switch the decorative collars worn with her robe to reflect her opinion about the court’s decision or an act of Congress. A black bib necklace with rhinestones indicated a dissenting opinion.
Justice Ginsburg was acknowledged for her restrained writing, but her dissenting opinions could be pointed. She also read several dissents from the bench, an action that reinforced just how wrong she believed the majority opinion was. One such dissent applied to the case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, 1997, when she said, “In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.”
No matter which side of the argument she held, Justice Ginsburg realized and appreciated the impact that the law had on the lives of individuals. She fought to have that law applied fairly and equally. And so with legal accomplishments so numerous that it would be impossible to list them all, I offer some notable examples of Justice Ginsburg’s contributions to helping make legal discrimination a thing of the past. Justice Ginsburg’s work…
- Demonstrated to the 1970s court that sex discrimination hurts men as well as women. Charles Moritz had the responsibility of being the sole caregiver for his mother. He was denied the caregiving tax deduction, however, because the IRS allowed the deduction, by statute, to be claimed only by women, or widowed or divorced men, and Mr. Moritz was unmarried. The Government argued that Justice Ginsburg couldn’t be right because if she was, hundreds of other laws would be unconstitutional, too—a strategy that not only backfired but launched Justice Ginsburg’s “Appendix E” list of other laws to be dismantled. The case also allowed Justice Ginsburg and her husband to collaborate because Martin Ginsburg was a tax specialist, and the case had originated in tax court.
- Helped to provide greater protection to women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant from being fired from a job or not being considered for a job. In the 1970s, Justice Ginsburg and ACLU Women’s Rights Project attorney, Susan Deller Ross, fought to have pregnancy discrimination recognized as a form of sex discrimination. They are credited with helping to pass the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, an amendment to Title VII in 1978, which gave greater protection to women against getting fired or not being considered for a job because they are pregnant or are planning to become pregnant. The Women’s Rights Project also fought against forced sterilizations, procedures that disproportionately affected poor women in the South, who, according to the ACLU, had been told that sterilization was a requirement to keep their jobs.[viii]
- Made it unlawful for a state to automatically prefer men over women as executors of estates. In 1971, Justice Ginsburg represented Sally Reed, whose son, a minor, had died. Ms. Reed wanted to be the executor of his estate, rather than having that role go to her ex-husband. Though Ms. Reed filed her application first, her ex-husband’s petition was automatically approved because of a statute that said that, “males must be preferred to females,” when there was more than one qualified person. Reed v. Reed was the first time that the Supreme Court struck down a state law because it discriminated because of gender.
- Paved the way for women to have the right to financial independence and equal benefits. Justice Ginsburg’s work contributed to passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974, which allowed women to apply for bank accounts, credit cards, and mortgages without a male co-signer. According to the ACLU, she also helped to ensure that women could receive the same military housing allowances as men, and that women were no longer required to pay more for pension plans than men to receive the same benefits.[ix]
- Required juries to include women. Jury duty was considered to be optional for women until 1979 because of their family and household obligations. Justice Ginsburg fought to have women required to be on juries on the basis that their civic duty should be valued the same as that of men.[x]
- Made it unlawful for women to be denied, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature—equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in, and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities. United States v. Virginia, 1996 The Virginia Military Institute was the last all-male public university in the US, and while the state of Virginia offered to provide a parallel program at the private, all women’s Mary Baldwin College, Justice Ginsburg argued that women would still be denied, among other things, the rigorous military training, faculty stature, funding, prestige, and alumni support and influence.
- Helped to reset the statute of limitations on equal-pay lawsuits. In Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, 2007, Lily Ledbetter sued her employer for discriminatory pay. She had started out at the same salary as her male colleagues but over the years, made thousands of dollars less than them. In a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter’s claim hadn’t been timely. Justice Ginsburg vehemently disagreed, saying that “the ball is in Congress’ court.” Congress agreed, overturning the court’s decision, and in 2009, President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to reset the statute of limitations on equal-pay lawsuits with every paycheck[xi]
- Changed the concept of marriage. Justice Ginsburg’s vote in Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015 helped to legalize same-sex marriages in every US state.
- Stood firm in protecting women’s reproductive rights. Though a fierce defender of a woman’s right to choose, Justice Ginsburg did not like the way that Roe v. Wade was structured. She believed that it tried to do too much, and in so doing, left itself open to attacks. Justice Ginsburg remained staunch in her fight for women’s reproductive rights, authoring a concurrence—a written opinion in which the judge agrees with the majority decision but states different or additional reasons for his/her opinion—in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 2016, a case in which the Supreme Court helped strike down a Texas law, H.B.2, that imposed multiple restrictions on abortion clinics. The intent of the Texas law appeared to be to restrict abortions by putting undue burdens on women seeking them. Justice Ginsberg wrote, “It is beyond rational belief that H.B.2 could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions.” She then added, “When a State severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners, faute de mieux (“for want of a better alternative”—MAS note), at great risk to their health and safety.”
“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.“—Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Did you know?
- While at Columbia in the early 1960s, Justice Ginsburg learned Swedish, and spent six weeks in that country, working on another legal passion, civil procedure—the study of the rules of court that must be followed by the judge and parties in civil cases (versus criminal cases). The experience was said to have been important in forming the Justice’s fight for equality. In Sweden, “her eyes were opened[xii]” Women composed a quarter of law school classes, and society was structured so that women could marry, continue their studies, and have children. In fact, Justice Ginsburg put her daughter, Jane, in one of Sweden’s childcare centers, and was pleased with the facilities and offerings.
- They may have been ideological opposites, but Justice Ginsburg and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were close friends. Their common interests included food, the opera, and law. The fellow New Yorkers even traveled together and celebrated New Year’s Eve together. Justice Scalia once said, “What’s not to like? Except her views on the law.” And Justice Ginsburg’s take on Justice Scalia’s 2014 speech to the American Bar Association? She disagreed with his thesis but noted, “…he said it in an absolutely captivating way[xiii].”
- Justice Ginsburg still did strength training this year, having worked with the same personal trainer since 1999. In 2019, she told an audience at Berkeley Law that she worked out, even after having been diagnosed with cancer for the fourth time. Her full-body strength exercises took place twice a week at 7:00 p.m., and targeted her arms, legs, chest, back, shoulders, glutes, and abs. She did push-ups, planks, and weighted exercises[xiv] She also rode horses until well into her 70s, and went parasailing.
- Justice Ginsburg was not the cook of her house—but Martin was an excellent chef. He was also his wife’s biggest supporter, giving up a successful New York law practice to move to Washington for his wife’s appointment to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit, and lobbying for her appointment to the Supreme Court.
- Justice Ginsburg’s collection of collars stemmed from an effort to add some femininity to the court’s robe, which she believed was made for a man because it had room for a man’s coat and tie, Justices Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor decided to add collars—aka, jabots. Justice Ginsburg’s favorite collar was said to be the white crocheted collar she is seen wearing in the photo above, which she got in Cape Town, South Africa.
- Justice Ginsburg became a pop icon when she was in her 80s. She became the subject of a popular documentary, a biopic, an operetta, was on the cover of Time magazine, and was featured in a number of Saturday Night Live sketches. She is also celebrated in an array of merchandise featuring “The Notorious RBG” moniker. [xv]
- Justice Ginsburg served 27 years on our country’s highest court.
- Justice Ginsburg is survived by her two children, Jane C. Ginsburg and James S. Ginsburg, four grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter. Jane C. Ginsburg is a professor at Columbia Law School. James S. Ginsburg is a classical music producer; the founder and president of Cedille Records. Martin Ginsburg passed in 2010 of cancer.
“Don’t be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, resentment. These just zap energy and waste time.”—Ruth Bader Ginsburg
And so, it is with heartfelt thanks and deep respect that we bid farewell to a great woman who left her indelible mark on this world. Justice Ginsburg—may you rest in peace—and power.
“It has always been that girls should have the same opportunity to dream, to aspire and achieve—to do whatever their God-given talents enable them to do—as boys.” — Ruth Bader Ginsberg
[i] Barnes, Robert and Fletcher, Michael; (2020 September 18); Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court justice and legal pioneer for gender equality, dies at 87; The Washington Post; https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/ruth-bader-ginsburg-dies/2020/09/18/3cedc314-fa08-11ea-a275-1a2c2d36e1f1_story.html
[ii] Barnes, Robert and Fletcher, Michael; (2020 September 18); Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court justice and legal pioneer for gender equality, dies at 87; The Washington Post; https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/ruth-bader-ginsburg-dies/2020/09/18/3cedc314-fa08-11ea-a275-1a2c2d36e1f1_story.html and Greehouse, Linda; (2020 September 18); Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court’s Feminist Icon, Is Dead at 87; The New York Times; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/18/us/ruth-bader-ginsburg-dead.html
[iii] Totenberg, Nina; (2020 September 18); Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Champion of Gender Equality, Dies at 87; NPR; https://www.npr.org/2020/09/18/100306972/justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-champion-of-gender-equality-dies-at-87
[v] Barnes, Robert and Fletcher, Michael; (2020 September 18); Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court justice and legal pioneer for gender equality, dies at 87; The Washington Post; https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/ruth-bader-ginsburg-dies/2020/09/18/3cedc314-fa08-11ea-a275-1a2c2d36e1f1_story.html
[vi] Greehouse, Linda; (2020 September 18); Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court’s Feminist Icon, Is Dead at 87; The New York Times; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/18/us/ruth-bader-ginsburg-dead.html
[vii] otenberg, Nina; (2020 September 18); Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Champion of Gender Equality, Dies at 87; NPR; https://www.npr.org/2020/09/18/100306972/justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-champion-of-gender-equality-dies-at-87
[viii] Rodriguez, Leah; (2020 September 21); 5 Laws Ruth Bader Ginsburg Championed to Support Gender Equality; Global Citizen; https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/gender-equality-laws-quotes-ruth-bader-ginsburg/
[xi]Blakemore, Erin; (2020 September 18); Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Landmark Opinions on Women’s Rights; www.history.com; https://www.history.com/news/ruth-bader-ginsburgs-landmark-opinions-womens-rights-supreme-court
[xii] The World Staff; (2020 September 21); RBG’s early days in Sweden shaped her fight for women’s rights; https://www.pri.org/stories/2020-09-21/rbg-s-early-days-sweden-shaped-her-fight-women-s-equality
[xiii] Wolf, Richard; (2020 September 20); Opera, travel, food, law: The unlikely friendship of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia; USA Today; https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/09/20/supreme-friends-ruth-bader-ginsburg-and-antonin-scalia/5844533002/
[xiv] Brown, Maressa; (2020 September 19); Feminist Icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Was Legend in the Courtroom—and the Gym; Shape; https://www.shape.com/fitness/workouts/justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-fitness-legacy; and Totenberg, Nina; (2020 September 18); Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Champion of Gender Equality, Dies at 87; NPR; https://www.npr.org/2020/09/18/100306972/justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-champion-of-gender-equality-dies-at-87
[xv] Totenberg, Nina; (2020 September 18); Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Champion of Gender Equality, Dies at 87; NPR; https://www.npr.org/2020/09/18/100306972/justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-champion-of-gender-equality-dies-at-87
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