Updated: Mar 22
A trailblazer and vocal dissident, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020) was a legal powerhouse, feminist icon and fierce fighter right until the very end.
Barely five feet tall and slight in stature, Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not appear very intimidating upon first glance. Still, her towering intellect and incredible wit have left a gaping hole in the Supreme Court that will be a challenge to fill.
Ginsburg was extremely determined in her role as a Justice in the Supreme Court, missing oral arguments only two times throughout her career because of illness, and working from her hospital bed while admitted for a gallbladder infection. As the second woman, and first Jewish woman, to become a member of the Supreme Court, she faced an uphill battle against misogyny and bigotry for much of her life. Still, she always came out the other side fighting, even until her very last days.
Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn, New York on 15 March 1933 to Nathan and Celia Bader. Her father was a Jewish immigrant from Odesa, Ukraine and her mother was born in New York to Austrian-Jewish parents. Celia channelled her love for education via her daughter, encouraging her to visit libraries and excel at her studies.
Following her mother’s death, Ruth Bader went on to study at Cornell University, where she graduated top of her class in 1954 and met her husband, Martin Ginsburg. They married after she graduated and she gave birth to her first child, Jane Ginsburg, in 1955. While pregnant with her daughter, Ginsburg was demoted from her position in the Social Security Administration office in Oklahoma, with there being no legal protection against discrimination towards pregnant women. It was this occurrence that led her to conceal her second pregnancy.
In 1956, Ginsburg enrolled in Harvard Law School and was one of only nine women in a class of 500. Famously, the Dean of the law school would ask all of the enrolling female students why they were “taking the place of a man?”.
In an interview for Stanford Lawyer magazine (2013), Ginsburg talked about the challenges women faced while students at the school, from prejudice to bathrooms:
“Back then, Harvard had two classroom buildings, Austin and Langdell. Only Austin had a women’s bathroom. So if you were taking a class, or worse, an exam, in Langdell, you had to make a mad dash if you needed to use the bathroom. Yet, amazingly from today’s perspective, we never complained about it. It was just the way things were.”
Despite once again finishing top of her class, after transferring to Colombia Law School for her final year, Ginsburg struggled to find work after completing her studies:
“Not a law firm in the entire city of New York would employ me, I struck out on three grounds: I was Jewish, a woman and a mother”.
In 1960, she was recommended by one of her professors, Albert Martin Sacks, for a clerkship under Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. However, Frankfurter rejected her on the basis of her gender. By the end of her time at university, she became the first woman to be on two major law reviews: Harvard Law Review and Colombia Law Review.
Taking her experience with discrimination in her stride, Ginsburg began teaching some of the first classes on women and the law when she became a professor at Rutgers Law School in 1963, becoming one of the under 20 women teaching law across the country. In the 1970s, she joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and became the co-founder of the Women’s Rights Project at the union; she argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court while director of the project between 1973 and 1976, and won five of them.
Her first successful case before the SCOTUS was when she filed the lead brief for Reed v Reed (1971), which detailed if men could be automatically preferred over women as estate executors. In agreeing with Ginsburg, the court’s ruling marked the first time the Supreme Court had struck down a piece of legislation due to gender-based discrimination.
Ginsburg became prominent in such cases, and described her role akin to that of a ‘kindergarten teacher’, educating a lot of her male peers on misogyny and sexism:
“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made”
Her role in the federal legal system began in 1980 when she was nominated to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Colombia by President Jimmy Carter. Her time on the bench was marked by her position as a ‘cautious jurist’ – taking a balanced, centrist approach to cases and working them rationally.
She left the Court of Appeals after being nominated and confirmed as a Justice to the Supreme Court in 1993. She became only the second woman on the bench, after Justice Sandra O’Connor, nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1981. During this time, she appeared to move leftwards ideologically, becoming a vocal advocate for social issues and a fearless warrior against cases involving minority rights.
As more and more conservative justices were appointed to the bench, she became known for her confidence in challenging the views of her fellow justices, doing so cordially and respectfully to her peers:
“The most effective dissent spells out differences without jeopardising collegiality or public respect for and confidence in the judiciary.”
In the years after, Ginsburg sat on the bench during many landmark rulings including Bush v Gore (2000), Shelby County v Holder (2013) for which she dissented against the ruling which undermined the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and Obergefell v Hodges (2015) for which she sided with the 5-4 majority to legalise same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr, she stated:
“‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion”
Ginsburg battled cancer five times throughout her life, unfortunately losing her final battle this week, however in her absence she leaves a legacy to inspire people everywhere and a duty we now must uphold in her name. Ginsburg was adamant, in her final days, that “my most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed”.
Thousands gathered outside the steps of the Supreme Court to mourn her loss and honour her wish. With just 46 days to go until the presidential election, America is at a crossroads judicially. Republicans are likely looking to nominate a replacement before voting begins in November. In contrast, Democrats are determined to uphold Ginsburg’s wish and the precedent set by Republican senators in the final months of Barack Obama’s presidency with the failed nomination of Merrick Garland, that the new president should appoint the next justice.
Regardless of what happens within the next few months, Ginsburg’s time on the bench has made it clear that, despite her small stature, her successor will have enormous shoes to fill.
A cultural icon adored by all ages, legal giant presiding on some of the most tumultuous times in recent political history, and a teacher from whom we all can learn, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has not just made a mark in history, she has left her writing all over it. In her calm demeanour and timeless elegance, she has redefined what it means to be a part of a system so torn apart by partisan politics.
Her legacy lives on through her many admirers across the country who will go to the polls in November, determined to ensure her longstanding vision of a future of justice and equality for all.
“When I’m sometimes asked, ‘When will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court]?’ and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”