Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sometimes called RBG or even The Notorious RBG, was a justice of the supreme court who has a legacy of fighting for women’s rights in the U.S.A. and contributed greatly to the recognition of women’s rights in America.
On Friday, September 18th, she passed away from pancreatic cancer.
Today, I would like to talk about her life and impact, and why her seat on the Supreme Court was and is so important.
As I stated above, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in 1933. She was born to an immigrant family and was the first-born American on her father’s side and born not as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but was born as Joan Ruth Bader. She had an older sister, Marilyn, who passed away from meningitis when Ruth was fourteen months old.
Her parents were Celia Bader, a first generation child to Jewish Austrian immigrants, and Nathan Bader, a Jewish immigrant from Odessa, Russia. Ginsburg said about it that it seemed that her mother’s goal had been to make sure she got through high school, as she was very strict about her adhering to her studies and piano practice. Celia also often took her daughter to the local library and thought that Ruth would become a high school history teacher if she could go to college, an opportunity that in spite of graduating at 15, Celia had not had herself. Ginsburg’s high school, James Madison High School, has a law program and has dedicated a court room in her honor. She and her mother were very close when she was growing up right up until her mother’s death from cancer when Ruth was 17.
Ruth’s mother taught her two lessons above all others: Be a lady, and Be Independent.
Be a lady meant to not get overwhelmed by strong emotions and let them overtake you. Be independent meant that it was okay if Ruth never met a prince charming or had any husband, so long as she could get by on her own. Ginsburg has said that these lessons instilled in her confidence and that this turned out to be very important as she tried to be a woman working in a field dominated by men.
In 1950, Ginsburg began attending Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. At the time the ratio of men to women at Cornell was 4 to 1. Ruth reportedly never went on a date with the same man twice her freshman year and met her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg (or ‘Marty’) on a blind date. She has said about him that he was the “first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain.”
When talking about men and women at university, Ruth expressed sadness that the women around her seemed to feel that they had to to downplay their intelligence around the men at the college. In a world where she was one of not many women attending Cornell and was told by most men to keep quiet about her talents and beliefs, meeting Marty must have been a relief. In Ruth’s own words, “meeting him was the most fortunate thing that ever happened to me.” The two married in 1954, one month after she had graduated from Cornell with a bachelor of arts degree. She was a member of the sorority Phi Beta Kappa and also the highest-ranking woman in her class.
The couple was described as being very different from each other, with Marty being the funny outgoing one and Ruth being the quiet and reserved one. He said once that she didn’t give him advice on cooking and he didn’t give her advice on the law, and that was how they made things work. Ruth was apparently a terrible cook — so bad that Marty said “Out of self-preservation, I decided I had better learn to cook because Ruth, to quote her precisely, was expelled from the kitchen by her food-loving children nearly a quarter century ago.”
This was also during the Red Scare, at which time Ruth noticed that lawyers could defend the people accused by McCarthy, who was abusing his power. Her family did not approve of her choice to go to law school until after she and Marty were married because in their view she might fail, and her marriage would guarantee someone could take care of her if she did.
In 1956, Ruth enrolled at Harvard Law School. At the time, she was one of only 9 women in a class of 552. The Dean reportedly invited all the women to a dinner at his family home and asked each of them “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” She said that the pressure was extraordinarily high as “you were constantly on display”. Professors also never gave their female students the attention they gave the men, instead choosing consistently to call on men to answer questions, often ignoring the women entirely.
During this time, Ruth also had a young daughter at home and Marty became sick with a case of testicular cancer. It was his third year of law school, but her first, and the high pressure of being worthy of the spot she had ‘taken’ as well as wanting to care for her husband and child led to her coming home, taking care of her daughter and ill husband until it was time for her daughter to go to bed, and then staying up most of the night studying. Ruth says that during this time she only got about two hours of sleep a night.
When Marty graduated Harvard Law School after this and his cancer was gone, he got a job in New York City. Because of this and because it was only Ruth’s second year finishing at Harvard, she transferred to Columbia University so they could stay together without her being far away at Harvard. In 1959 she graduated Columbia and tied for the first of her class.
At the beginning of her career, Ruth had trouble finding anyone who would hire her. Because sex discrimination was legal in many places, the places she applied to would openly tell her that they would not hire her because she was a woman. In 1960, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurther rejected her for a clerkship position because she was a woman even though she had a good recommendation from Albert Martin Sacks, a professor and eventually a dean of Harvard Law School. Later, Gerald Gunther who was a law professor at Columbia tried to get her hired by Judge Edmund L. Palmieri as a law clerk. He even threatened that he would never again recommend a Columbia graduate if she was not given the position. Later that year, she began to work as a clerk under Judge Palmieri, and served for two years.
From 1961 to 1963 Ginsburg worked on a project concerning International Procedure at Columbia Law School, even becoming an associate director on the project and learning Swedish in order to also author a book about civil procedure with Anders Bruzelius. At the time in Sweden between 20–25% of all law students were women, something that Ginsburg wanted for women in America, too.
In 1963 she became a professor at Rutgers Law School and taught on civil procedure. She was told up front that she would not be paid as much as the male professors because her husband made a good wage. In 1969 she became tenured.
Reed V. Reed
When most sources bring up Ginsburg’s life, Reed V. Reed is discussed, and with good reason. Ginsburg and Mel Wulf, who both worked for the ACLU at the time, wrote the brief for the case. It took place in 1971 and was based on the question of whether a woman could be trusted as a man was to be the executor of an estate.
The facts were these: Sally and Cecil Reed had separated after their son passed away because they could not decide who would be the executor of his estate. Both filed a petition with the Probate Court in their home state of Idaho in which they requested that they be the one to be the administrator of the estate of their son. The law at the time stated that “males must be preferred to females” in making such decisions. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court under the argument that this law should not be upheld as the Fourteenth Amendment forbid discrimination on the basis of a person’s sex.
Sally Reed won her case, with the Supreme Court ruling that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment forbid a difference in treatment on the basis of a person’s sex. It was hailed as a landmark case in the advancement of women’s rights, as this was the first time such a ruling had passed.
Ginsburg and Wulf also recognized Pauli Murray and Dorothy Kenyon as co-authors, even though neither helped write the brief. Ginsburg wanted to recognize the debt of gratitude she owed them because her own argument was built on their work, and so they were credited.
The Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU
In 1972 Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, and in 1973 she officially became the general counsel. The first case she worked on during this time was Fronteiro VS Richardson in 1973. It came about after lieutenant Sharron Fronteiro noticed that the men she was surrounded by in the United States Air Force were getting a housing stipend and she was not. Servicemen automatically qualified for assistance for their wives, but women had to prove that their husbands were completely dependent on them to claim the same benefits. When she went to ask why she was not getting this benefit, she was told that she was “lucky that we let you in here at all.”
Ginsburg represented Fronteiro along with Joseph J. Levin, Jr., who worked for the Souther Poverty Law Center, when she sued. Ginsburg’s goal at the time was not just to get Fronteiro the same stipend that the men around her automatically qualified for, but also to get the Supreme Court to recognize sex discrimination under the law in the same way racial discrimination was recognized. She needed five out of the nine men to vote in her favor. In the end, she got only four. Still, Fronteiro did win her case.
These two cases were only the start of her fight for women’s rights. Women’s rights became the focus of her career, so much so that many scholars and advocates say that she facilitated many legal advances for women under the Equal Protection Clause, and more and more women won their cases concerning the subject of sex discrimination.
U.S. Court of Appeals
In 1977, a peanut farmer became president. Jimmy Carter is noted in history for his unusual political career and for the political climate that allowed him to take the office. During his time in office he reportedly said that the bench all looked “like me”, but America didn’t look all like him. Carter tried to commit to diversity as much as he could, and one place he could do that was in the courts.
This led him to nominate Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1980. On June 18th, 1980, she was confirmed. During her time on this court she tend to vote more often with conservative opinions and also became friends with Justice Antonin Scalia.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. She was not his first, second, or even third choice — in fact, the idea of nominating her wasn’t popular simply because of her age. By this time Ginsburg was in her sixties and so nominating her would have been quite unusual.
When Ginsburg was finally nominated, it was due in part to her husband, Marty, pushing for her nomination. He said that her work in law could not be ignored, as she was a prominent figure in the fight for women’s rights. Ginsburg was also suggested to Clinton by Attorney General Janet Reno. Clinton wanted to increase the diversity of the court, and Ginsburg was attractive for this proposition as a Jewish woman. She was confirmed in 1993, the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, with a vote of 96–3. When Justice O’Connor retired in 2006, Ginsburg was the only woman left on the court.
Time on the Supreme Court
Ginsburg’s time on the Supreme Court was marked largely by her becoming known as the “great dissenter”. She continued to fight for women’s rights, fighting for equal pay and a woman’s right to abortion. On abortion she said in a 2009 interview with the New York Times that “the government has no business making that choice for a woman.”
She is also credited as influencing the court in the case of Salford Unified School District v. Redding in 2009. The case concerned an incident in which a school had strip-searched a thirteen year old girl on the grounds that they were searching for drugs. She said of her colleagues that they could not fully understand what it would be like to go through this, as “They have never been a thirteen year old girl.” The court voted 8–1 that the school had not had the right to perform a strip-search and had violated the student.
Recently in 2015, the case Obergefell v. Hodges came before the Supreme Court. The case concerned same sex couples who had sued their state concerning bans against same-sex marriage. Ginsburg was a crucial vote in favor of overturning the marriage bans, which effectively legalized same-sex marriage for the first time ever across the United States. She said of it, “We have to change our idea about marriage. Marriage today is not what it was under the common law tradition, under the civil law tradition.”
She also continued to argue in favor of a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, arguing that “When a State severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners, faute de mien, at great risk to their health and safety.” The H.B.2 law, a law designed to deter women from obtaining a safe and legal abortion, was removed in the state of Texas due to this case.
These are only a few of the cases she has made landmark decisions on and helped women advance in rights concerning bodily autonomy. Her service in the courts has also drastically changed the landscape in America concerning discrimination on the basis of sex for women, something that Ginsburg had to repeatedly point out to her male colleagues, as they did not believe that it even existed. She stated in the 2018 documentary that she often felt “like a kindergarten teacher” in her early career, as it was difficult to get the men around her to see that the issues she was fighting against were, in fact, very real.
Ginsburg was also a very interesting person. Her friends describe her as someone who was not one for small talk, instead getting right to the meat of things. She is described often as someone who is very quiet and shy, only saying what she needed to and being careful with the words she chose.
Marty, her husband, reportedly had to get her to go to bed at times by physically taking her from her work, even late into their marriage. Her passion for law was perhaps rivaled only by her passion for Opera, something she enjoyed greatly and which got her mind to relax. (It’s also interesting to note that after Marty’s death in 2010, a cookbook was created in his honor.)
Her recent battle with cancer was not her first, or second but her third, but rather her fifth time fighting cancer. In 1999 she battled colon cancer, in 2009 pancreatic cancer. She fell outside of her office in 2018, leading to the discovery that she had cancerous nodules in her lungs. She missed her first oral argument at the Supreme Court after a lobe of her left lung was removed following this. In 2019, it was announced that once again, she was battling pancreatic cancer.
In her own words, she said that she “would remain a member of the court so long as I can do the job full steam.”
She also loved scrunchies and did twenty push ups a day.
On September 18th, 2020, Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away from mestatic pancreatic cancer at the age of 87.
It is reported that she will be laid to rest next to her husband in Arlington Cemetery. She stayed on the court after the election of President Donald J. Trump after she had been planning to retire. It’s likely that she thought, and not unreasonably after this was her fifth time fighting cancer, that she could make it just four more years.
Her death is unfortunately one that is causing quite a stir right now as Mitch McConnell has already proposed voting on filling her seat, something he refused to do concerning Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court as it was “too close to the election” when the 2016 election was just over 300 days away. In spite of this, McConnell is now adamant about voting on someone to replace her, something that could shape the Supreme Court for a long time to come.
Imra Jones, the creator and producer of TransLash Media, said to CBS News that her death has become a rallying cry to vote because “She was civil but at the same time she was a warrior… and because she was able to hold those two things at the same time, she managed to revolutionize law in the United States and expand equal protections to women in a way that was unprecedented before.”
As stressful as 2020 has already been, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the possibility of her swift replacement with a justice chosen by Mitch McConnell could create lasting damage to her work towards women’s rights and liberation.
According to Ginsburg’s granddaughter, Clara Spera, she had this to say on it: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
I hope that her final wish can be fulfilled.
May her memory be a blessing.
If you have not yet, please register to vote or check your voter registration. I know 2020 is an overwhelming year, but please do not take voting lightly. Plan to vote by mail or plan your voting day if you need to, but do not forget its importance.