Ruth Bader Ginsburg (born Joan Ruth Bader; 1933 – September 18, 2020), also known by her initials RBG, was an American jurist who served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1993 until her death in 2020. She was an important liberal member of the court, nominated by President Bill Clinton. Ginsburg was the second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. For 3 years,she was the only female justice on the Supreme Court. During that time, Ginsburg became more forceful with her dissents, especially in relation to women’s rights.
Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn in 1933 to a Ukranian Jewish immigrant father and an American-Austrian Jewish mother. When Joan was 14 months old, her elder sister Marilyn died of meningitis at the age of six. Her sister’s childhood nickname for her, “Kiki” (because she had been a kicky baby” stuck even after Marilyn’s death. At school, Kiki was known as Ruth, because there were several other Joans in her year group. Although not devout, the Bader family belonged to East Midwood Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue, where Ruth learned tenets of the Jewish faith and gained familiarity with the Hebrew language.
Her mother Celia took an active role in her daughter’s education, often taking her to the library. However, despite their daughter’s good grades, her parents chose to send her brother to college instead. However, Celia was determined for her daughter to become a history teacher and thus sought to further her education at James Madison High School. However, Celia died the day before Ruth graduated from the school.
“If you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it. I had a life partner who thought my work was as important as his, and I think that made all the difference for me.”
Bader attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. There, she met Martin D. Ginsburg at age 17. She graduated from Cornell with a bachelor of arts degree in government on June 23, 1954, the highest-ranking female student in her class. She married Martin a month after graduation, and the pair moved to Okhahloma where her new husband was stationed as an army reserve. 21 year old Ruth worked for the Social Security Administration office, but was demoted after becoming pregnant with her daughter, whom she gave birth to in 1955. Perhaps this triggered her passion for women’s rights and legal gender equality. In her words: “”It was lucky that I met Marty at a time when the best degree that a girl could have not her BA or her JD, it was her M-R-S.”
After the birth of their daughter, Ginsburg’s husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer. During this period, Ginsburg attended class and took notes for both of them, typing her husband’s dictated papers and caring for their daughter and her sick husband—all while making the Harvard Law Review. Martin Ginsburg died of complications from metastatic cancer on June 27, 2010. They spoke publicly of being in a shared earning/shared parenting marriage including in a speech Martin Ginsburg wrote and had intended to give before his death that Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered posthumously. The pair had two children and four grandchildren.
“[My mother-in-law] said, ‘Dear, in every good marriage it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.’ And I followed that advice in dealing not only with my dear spouse but in dealing even with my colleagues on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
In autumn 1956, Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School, as one of only 9 women in a class of 500 men. The Dean of Harvard Law supposedly invited all the female law students to dinner at his family home and asked the female law students, including Ginsburg, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” (#puke). When her husband was given a job in NYC, Ruth transferred to Columbia, becoming the first woman to be on two major law reviews: the Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review. In 1959, she graduated with her law degree at Columbia as tied first in her class.
Ginsburg initially had a tough time finding a job. In 1960, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter chose to reject Ginsburg for a clerkship position because she was a woman, despite her strong letters of recommendation from professors at Harvard and Columbia law schools. Eventually, one of her lecturers succeeded in pressuring Judge Palmieri to offer her a clerkship, a position which she held for 2 years.
From 1961 to 1963, Ginsburg was a research associate and then an associate director of the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure; she learned Swedish to co-author a book with Anders Bruzelius on civil procedure in Sweden. Ginsburg’s time in Sweden writing and researching her book also influenced her thinking on gender equality. She was inspired when she observed the changes in Sweden, where women comprised 20 to 25 percent of all law students; one of the judges whom Ginsburg observed was working at eight months pregnant.
“I tell law students… if you are going to be a lawyer and just practice your profession, you have a skill—very much like a plumber. But if you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself… something that makes life a little better for people less fortunate than you.”
Her first position as a professor was at Rutgers Law School in 1963. However, she was advised that she would be paid less than her male colleagues because was expected to support herself on the earnings of her husband. At the time Ginsburg entered academia, she was one of fewer than 20 female law professors in the United States. She taught civil law at Rutgers from 1963 until 1972, receiving tenure in 1969.
In 1970, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first law journal in the U.S. to focus exclusively on women’s rights. From 1972 to 1980, she taught at Columbia Law School, where she became the first tenured woman and co-authored the first law school casebook on sex discrimination (of which she now had ample personal experience to draw on). She also spent a year as a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (1977-78).
In 1972, Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). By 1974, the organisation had contributed to more than gender discrimination cases. As the director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, she won five out of six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976. Rather than radically asking the court to end all gender discrimination at once, she strategically focussed on specific discriminatory statutes and built on each successive victory. She chose plaintiffs carefully, at times picking male plaintiffs to demonstrate that gender discrimination was harmful to both men and women (the only way that men would care, obvs). Importantly, the laws Ginsburg targeted included those that on the surface appeared beneficial to women, but in fact reinforced the notion that women needed to be dependent on men. Her strategic advocacy extended to word choice, favoring the use of “gender” instead of “sex”, after her secretary suggested the word “sex” would serve as a distraction to judges (men, honestly, jfc). She attained a reputation as a skilled oral advocate, and her work led directly to the end of gender discrimination in many areas of the law (yay!)
“I didn’t change the Constitution; the equality principle was there from the start. I just was an advocate for seeing its full realization.”
Ginsburg voluntarily authored the brief for Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (1971), in which the Supreme Court extended the protections of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, to women. In 1972, she argued before the 10th Circuit in Moritz v. Commissioner on behalf of a man who had been denied a caregiver deduction because of his gender. In 1973, she challenged a statute making it more difficult for a female service member to claim an increased housing allowance for her husband than for a male service member seeking the same allowance for his wife. Ginsburg argued that the statute treated women as inferior, and the Supreme Court ruled 8–1 in her favour. She also won another case in 1975, in which she represented a widower denied survivor benefits under Social Security, which permitted widows but not widowers to collect special benefits while caring for minor children. She argued that the statute discriminated against male survivors of workers by denying them the same protection as their female counterparts. Again, her skill came in proving that gender stereotypes are as detrimental to men as they are to women.
She also challenged the Oklahoma law which declared separate drinking ages for men and women.For the first time, the court imposed what is known as intermediate scrutiny on laws discriminating based on gender, a heightened standard of Constitutional review. Her last case as an attorney before the Supreme Court was in 1978, challenging the validity of voluntary jury duty for women, on the ground that participation in jury duty was a citizen’s vital governmental service and therefore should not be optional for women. At the end of Ginsburg’s oral argument, then-Associate Justice William Rehnquist asked Ginsburg, “You won’t settle for putting Susan B. Anthony on the new dollar, then?” Ginsburg said she considered responding, “We won’t settle for tokens,” but instead opted not to answer.
Legal scholars and advocates credit Ginsburg’s body of work with making significant legal advances for women under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Taken together, Ginsburg’s legal victories discouraged legislatures from treating women and men differently under the law. She continued to work on the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project until her appointment to the Federal Bench in 1980.
“People ask me sometimes… ‘When will there be enough women on the court?’ And my answer is, ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked, but there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”
Ginsburg was nominated by President Jimmy Carter on April 14, 1980, to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She was confirmed by the United States Senate on June 18, 1980. Her time on the court earned her a reputation as a “cautious jurist” and a moderate.
President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court on June 14, 1993, to fill the seat vacated by retiring Justice Byron White. At the time of her nomination, Ginsburg was viewed as a moderate. Clinton was reportedly looking to increase the court’s diversity, which Ginsburg did as the only Jewish justice since the 1969 resignation of Justice Abe Fortas. She was the second female and the first Jewish female justice of the Supreme Court. She eventually became the longest-serving Jewish justice. However, this is not meant to imply that she was appointed purely to fulfil diversity agendas: The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary rated Ginsburg as “well qualified”, its highest possible rating for a prospective justice.
During her testimony before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary as part of the confirmation hearings, Ginsburg refused to answer questions about her view on the constitutionality of some issues such as the death penalty as it was an issue she might have to vote on at later dates. However, she did not shy away from controversial issues. For example, she affirmed her belief in a constitutional right to privacy and explained at some length her personal judicial philosophy and thoughts regarding gender equality. Ginsburg was more forthright in discussing her views on topics about which she had previously written. The United States Senate confirmed her by a 96–3 vote on August 3, 1993. She received her commission on August 5, 1993 and took her judicial oath on August 10, 1993. What I want to know is who those three people are who had the audacity to vote against her.
“Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”
Ginsburg characterized her performance on the court as a cautious approach to adjudication..” The retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2006 left Ginsburg as the only woman on the court. Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times referred to the subsequent 2006–2007 term of the court as “the time when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg found her voice, and used it”. The term also marked the first time in Ginsburg’s history with the court where she read multiple dissents from the bench, a tactic employed to signal more intense disagreement with the majority.
When John Paul Stevens retired, Ginsburg became the senior member of the court’s “liberal wing”. This seniority meant that when the court split 5–4 along ideological lines and the liberal justices were in the minority, Ginsburg often had the authority to assign authorship of the dissenting opinion. Ginsburg was a proponent of the liberal dissenters speaking “with one voice” and, where practicable, presenting a unified approach to which all the dissenting justices can agree.
Ginsburg authored the court’s opinion in United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996), which struck down the Virginia Military Institute’s (VMI) male-only admissions policy as violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. VMI is a prestigious, state-run, military-inspired institution that did not admit women. For Ginsburg, a state actor such as VMI could not use gender to deny women the opportunity to attend VMI with its unique educational methods. Ginsburg emphasized that the government must show an “exceedingly persuasive justification” to use a classification based on sex.
Ginsburg dissented in the court’s decision on Ledbetter v. Goodyear, 550 U.S. 618 (2007), a case where plaintiff Lilly Ledbetter filed a lawsuit against her employer claiming pay discrimination based on her gender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a 5–4 decision, the majority interpreted the statute of limitations as starting to run at the time of every pay period, even if a woman did not know she was being paid less than her male colleague until later. Ginsburg found the result absurd, pointing out that women often do not know they are being paid less, and therefore it was unfair to expect them to act at the time of each paycheque. She also called attention to the reluctance women may have in male-dominated fields to making waves by filing lawsuits over small amounts, choosing instead to wait until the disparity accumulates. Ginsberg was later credited with inspiring Obama’s introduction of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, making it easier for employees to win pay discrimination claims, became law.
“I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
Ginsburg was a vocal advocate of a woman’s right to an abortion. In 2009 she said: “[t]he basic thing is that the government has no business making that choice for a woman.” She was in the minority in 2007 when a 5-4 decision upheld partial birth abortion restrictions. In her dissent, Ginsburg opposed the consensus that the procedure was not safe for women. Ginsburg focused her opposition on the way Congress reached its findings and with the veracity of the findings. Joining the majority for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016), a case which struck down parts of a 2013 Texas law regulating abortion providers, Ginsburg also authored a short concurring opinion which was even more critical of the legislation at issue. She disputed the claim that Texas was acting for the benefit of women’s health, but rather that it was aimed at restricting women’s rights.
Ginsburg was also credited with influencing her colleague’s decision in 2009 when they ruled that a school went too far in ordering a 13-year-old female student to strip to her underwear and be searched for drugs. In an interview published before the court’s decision, Ginsburg shared her view that her colleagues did not fully appreciate the mental effect of a strip search on a young girl, as: “They have never been a 13-year-old girl.” In an 8–1 decision, the court agreed that the school’s search violated the Fourth Amendment and allowed the student’s lawsuit against the school to go forward. Only Ginsburg and Stevens would have allowed the student to sue individual school officials as well.
In 2018, Ginsburg expressed her support for the #MeToo movement: “It’s about time. For so long women were silent, thinking there was nothing you could do about it, but now the law is on the side of women, or men, who encounter harassment and that’s a good thing.” She also reflected on her own experiences with gender discrimination and sexual harassment, including a time when a chemistry professor at Cornell unsuccessfully attempted to trade her exam answers for sex.
“Feminism … I think the simplest explanation, and one that captures the idea, is a song that Marlo Thomas sang, ‘Free to be You and Me.’ Free to be, if you were a girl—doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Anything you want to be. And if you’re a boy, and you like teaching, you like nursing, you would like to have a doll, that’s OK too. That notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers—manmade barriers, certainly not heaven sent.”
In 2013, Ginsburg is believed to have been the first Supreme Court justice to officiate at a same-sex wedding. Earlier that summer, the court had bolstered same-sex marriage rights in two separate cases. Ginsburg believed the issue being settled led same-sex couples to ask her to officiate as there was no longer the fear of compromising rulings on the issue.
“We live in an age in which the fundamental principles to which we subscribe – liberty, equality and justice for all – are encountering extraordinary challenges, … But it is also an age in which we can join hands with others who hold to those principles and face similar challenges.”
Ginsburg advocated the use of foreign law and norms to shape U.S. law in judicial opinions, a view rejected by some of her conservative colleagues. Ginsburg supported using foreign interpretations of law for persuasive value and possible wisdom, not as precedent which the court is bound to follow. Ginsburg’s own reliance on international law dated back to her time as an attorney; in her concurring opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), a decision upholding Michigan Law School’s affirmative action admissions policy, Ginsburg noted there was accord between the notion that affirmative action admissions policies would have an end point and agrees with international treaties designed to combat racial and gender-based discrimination.
During three separate interviews in July 2016, Ginsburg criticized presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, telling The New York Times that she did not want to think about the possibility of a Trump presidency. She joked that she might consider moving to New Zealand. She later apologized for commenting on the presumptive Republican nominee, calling her remarks “ill advised”.
“I am a judge born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition. I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and the courage to remain constant in the service of that demand.”
Bader was born Jewish, but stopped practising when she was excluded from the minyan for mourners after the death of her mother, orthodox Judaism dictates. However, after attending a bat mitzvah in a more liberal stream of Judaism where the rabbi and cantor were both women, she rediscovered her faith. In March 2015, Ginsburg and Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt released “The Heroic and Visionary Women of Passover”, an essay highlighting the roles of five key women in the saga: “These women had a vision leading out of the darkness shrouding their world. They were women of action, prepared to defy authority to make their vision a reality bathed in the light of the day.” She also decorated her chambers with an artist’s rendering of the Hebrew phrase from Deuteronomy, “Zedek, zedek, tirdof,” (“Justice, justice shall you pursue”) as a reminder of her heritage and professional responsibility.
The Supreme Court bar formerly inscribed its certificates “in the year of our Lord”, which some Orthodox Jews opposed, and asked Ginsburg to object to. She did, and consequently Supreme Court bar members have since been given other choices of how to inscribe the year on their certificates.
“Anger, resentment, envy, and self-pity are wasteful reactions. They greatly drain one’s time. They sap energy better devoted to productive endeavors.”
In 1999, Ginsburg was diagnosed with colon cancer. During her treatment, she did not miss a day at work. When the chemo left her physically weakened, she began working with a personal trainer. By her 80th birthday, she was able to complete 20 press-ups (I can’t do 2 and I’m 24 without cancer so you go queen).
A decade after surviving her first battle with cancer, she was diagnosed again, this time with pancreatic cancer. Luckily, the tumour was caught early, and she returned to work 10 days after leaving hospital. She later had a stent fitted in her heart after experiencing discomfort at the gym (maybe I need a stent because I experience discomfot every time I attend the gym).
On November 8, 2018, Ginsburg fell in her office at the Supreme Court, fracturing three ribs, for which she was hospitalized. She returned to work the day after, however, a CT scan of her ribs following her November 8 fall showed cancerous nodules in her lungs. On December 21, Ginsburg underwent a left-lung lobectomy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to remove the nodules. For the first time since joining the Court more than 25 years earlier, Ginsburg missed oral argument on January 7, 2019, while she recuperated. She returned to the Supreme Court on February 15 to participate in a private conference with other justices in her first appearance at the court since her cancer surgery in December 2018.
Months later in August 2019, the Supreme Court announced that Ginsburg had recently completed three weeks of focused radiation treatment to ablate a tumor in her pancreas. Her cancer recurred throughout 2020, however: she reiterated her position that she “would remain a member of the court as long as I can do the job full steam”.
When John Paul Stevens retired in 2010, Ginsburg became the oldest justice on the court at age 77. Many believed that she would retire because of advancing age, poor health, and the death of her beloved husband. However, Ruth said that her work helped her to cope with her grief. During Obama’s leadership, there were calls for her to retire so Obama could appoint a like-minded successor. Ginsburg refused, affirming her desire to remain in court as long as she was of sound mind. She also expressed doubts that Obama would be able to appoint a similar successor.
“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”
Ginsburg died from complications of pancreatic cancer on September 18, 2020. At the age of 87, she was the fourth-oldest serving U.S. Supreme Court Justice in American history. One day before her death, Ginsburg was honored on Constitution Day and was awarded the 2020 Liberty Medal by the National Constitution Center. In the short time since her death, over $20 million has donated to various Democratic politicians, more than quintuple the previous record amount.
Fortunately, her legacy was also celebrated during her lifetime. In 2002, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She was also named one of 100 Most Powerful Women (2009) and one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people (2015).
More unusually, researchers at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History also named a praying mantis after her, Ilomantis ginsburgae. This was chosen because their neckplate resembles Ginsburg’s disctinctive jabot, but also because the new species was identified based upon the female insect’s genitalia rather than the male’s. The researchers thought that this was a fitting nod to Ginsburg’s fight for gender equality.
In 2019, Ginsburgh received the $1 million Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture. Awarded annually, the Berggruen Institute recognises “thinkers whose ideas have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world”, noting Ginsburg as “a lifelong trailblazer for human rights and gender equality”. Ginsburg received numerous similar awards including the LBJ Foundation’s Liberty & Justice for All Award, the World Peace and Liberty Award from international legal groups, and a lifetime achievement award from Diane von Furstenberg’s foundation all in 2020 alone. Absolute legend.
“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Ginsburg has been referred to as a “pop culture icon”. Her profile began to rise when she became the only serving female justice. Her increasingly fiery dissents, particularly in Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 2 (2013), led to the creation of the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr and Internet meme comparing the justice to rapper The Notorious B.I.G. The creator of the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr, then-law student Shana Knizhnik, teamed up with MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon to turn the blog into a book titled Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.Released in October 2015.
In 2018, a documentary about her was released and she featured in Deadpool 2 as one of his suggested X-Force of superheroes (not all heroes wear capes, they were jabots).
Also in 2018, a film based on her career was released. On the Basis of Sex charted her early life struggling for equal rights. English actress Felicity Jones portrays Ginsburg in the film, with Armie Hammer as her husband Marty. Ginsburg herself has a cameo in the film. If you haven’t see it, I HIGHLY recommend it. It’s absolutely fab and made me fall in love with her and Martin even more.
“Promoting active liberty does not mean allowing the majority to run roughshod over minorities. It calls for taking special care that all groups have a chance to fully participate in society and the political process.”
I hope that all of the above makes it apparent why RBG is one of my biggest heroes. In every sense, she was a superwoman – physically (in beating cancer so many times and working up until her death), legally (in the real influence she had on dismantling sexist laws), politically (in resisting conservative rule and providing a powerful liberal voice when it was desperately need), romantically (in finding a partner who appreciated her work and shared her vision), and religiously (in resisting the patriarchal trends within her tradition and striving to protect her religious rights and representation in the court). Shamefully, I hadn’t heard of her until a lawyer friend of mine took me to see On the Basis of Sex, and I came out feeling so inspired and empowered. I fell in love with her then, however researching her for this series of posts I discovered so many more incredible ways she was one of a kind. If I could achieve half of what she has, or live half the life she’s led, I would be overwhelmed. It is hard to overstate the hole that she will leave in the American justice system, or how radical her work was in its day (and even in the present). Rest in power, RBG. You are officially the coolest, and we gals owe you the world.