Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a revolutionary lawyer, longtime advocate for gender equality and public servant who served as a Supreme Court justice for 27 years, died on September 18, 2020 from metastatic cancer pancreas. She was 87 years old.
His death marked the end of an era for a tribunal indelibly shaped by both its liberal views and its commitment to judicial restraint. Known both for her steadfast convictions and taste for compromise, Ginsburg’s self-effacing manners and prowess in pop culture broadened the way audiences thought not only of women in power, but of the role of a judge in law. Supreme Court.
READ MORE: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s major opinions on women’s rights
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York on March 15, 1933. Her father, Nathan Bader, was born near Odessa, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. He immigrated to the United States at the age of 13. Her mother, Celia Amster Bader, was the daughter of recent Polish immigrants.
Ginsburg was originally called Joan, but her parents started calling her by her middle name, Ruth, in elementary school so she could avoid being mistaken for other students who shared her name . Ginsburg lost his older sister, Marilyn, who died at the age of six from meningitis.
Her mother had a profound influence on her life. Ginsburg’s earliest memories include going to the library with her and shopping so the family can save money for their studies. Celia hadn’t been able to go to college because her family chose to send her brother instead. As a result, she impressed her daughter on the importance of education. She died of cervical cancer the day before graduating from high school in Ginsburg.
A highly successful student, Ginsburg majored in government at Cornell University. As a student in the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, she became increasingly interested in how she could influence change as a lawyer. “The McCarthy era was a time when courageous lawyers used their legal education to support the right to think and speak freely,” she later recalls.
Ruth Bader married Martin David Ginsburg, whom she had met at Cornell, shortly after graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 1954. She had her first child, Jane, in 1955. At the time, she worked in an office in Social Security in Lawton, Oklahoma, near where her husband, who was in the U.S. military, was posted. She had been classified for a GS-5 job, but when she mentioned she was pregnant, she got a GS-2 job as a typist. It was her first experience of discrimination at work because of her gender. While working at the Social Security office, she also realized how difficult it was for Native Americans to access social security. Both forms of discrimination stuck with her and helped form the basis of her future career.
After her husband completed his military service, Ginsburg enrolled in Harvard Law School. In a class of over 500, she was one of only nine women. At Harvard, she was ridiculed by professors for being a woman and even denied access to library materials that were in a male room. In 1958, she transferred to Columbia University when her husband, who graduated from Harvard Law School a year before her, got a job at a New York law firm. Ginsburg is tied for first in his class at Columbia Law School and received his JD in 1959.
But in the early 1960s, even an elite law degree was not enough to help a woman find a job at a top law firm. Ginsburg struggled to find a job. She also sought jobs as a lawyer with a judge, but was turned down from a job with Judge Felix Frankfurter despite a strong recommendation because she was a wife and a mother.
“I wasn’t really surprised that Frankfurter wasn’t ready to hire a woman,” Ginsburg later recalls. Finally, she obtained an internship with Judge Edmund L. Palmieri. Subsequently, she worked on the Columbia project on international procedure and worked in Sweden. Then she tried to find a job at Columbia Law School, but to no avail. Instead, she took a job at Rutgers College, where she was paid less than her male colleagues. She had her second child, James, in 1965.
His time at Rutgers was to determine the course of his life. While teaching there, the New Jersey branch of the ACLU began referring cases of gender discrimination to Ginsburg. “Well, sex discrimination was seen as a woman’s job,” she later recalls, noting that her students urged her to tackle the problem. She began teaching gender discrimination and in 1971 tackled a fundamental case on the subject. Ginsburg did not discuss Reed vs. Reed, a case involving a man who was named his son’s executor because of a law that discriminates against women, before the United States Supreme Court. But she wrote the brief and the ACLU won the case.
Soon, Ginsburg had assumed a role in the new ACLU Project for Women’s Rights. In 1972, the same year she helped co-founder the project, she became the first woman to get a job at Columbia Law School.
Ginsburg chose his battles wisely, often using male plaintiffs to brush aside laws that discriminate against women. She had a strong ally in the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provided equal protection under all U.S. laws for all U.S. citizens. Slowly but surely, she used the equal protection clause to attack sex discrimination.
Among his victories were lawsuits that asserted equal government benefits for those who had served in the military (Frontiero v. Richardson, 1973), surviving spouse benefits (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 1975) and jury service (Duren v. Missouri, 1979). Ultimately, Ginsburg argued over 300 gender discrimination cases and appeared in Supreme Court in six cases.
In 1980, President Carter appointed Ginsburg to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. She was elevated to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1993 after being appointed by President Clinton. During her confirmation hearings, she notably refused to answer several questions that could at one time be submitted to the Supreme Court, a decision now dubbed “the Ginsburg precedent”.
As an associate judge, Ginsburg became the second woman and the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Although she espoused liberal opinions, she was known for her judicial restraint. However, she did not shy away from violent dissent when warranted, opposing, among other issues, the Supreme Court’s rejection of Lily Ledbetter’s pay gap challenge and her ruling in the Bush vs. Gore lawsuit that ruled the 2000 presidential election. She became known to wear a “necklace of dissent,” a beaded crop, when she challenged Supreme Court rulings.
She has also delivered some of the Supreme Court’s most influential majority opinions, such as United States v. Virginia (1996), which forced the Virginia Military Institute to abandon a policy that excluded women from participating, and Olmstead v. LC, a 1999 case that affirmed the right of people with disabilities to live in a community setting instead of being forced to live in institutions. She wrote nearly 200 opinions during her tenure on the Supreme Court.
Ginsburg was also active outside the Supreme Court. In 1997, she administered the oath of Vice President Al Gore until her second term, becoming the third woman to do so. She regularly spoke at colleges and universities and published the best-selling book My own words in 2016. In her private time, she enjoyed opera and reading mysteries. She made quick friendships with some of her colleagues, including Deputy Judge Antonin Scalia, who was often her opponent inside the court.
Later in life, Ginsburg achieved an unusual degree of pop culture recognition for a Supreme Court justice, with books like those from 2015. Notorious RBG, a 2018 biopic, Based on genderand comedy mailings by Saturday Night LiveKate McKinnon bolsters her widespread fame.
In 1999, Ginsburg was diagnosed with colon cancer. Although she didn’t miss any bench time as she recovered from surgery and subsequent treatments, she felt weak and began working out with a trainer. It turned into a regular fitness routine that involved daily pushups and planks. Despite subsequent episodes of pancreatic cancer, an arterial stent, fractured ribs and lung cancer, which caused her to miss bench sessions for the first time in her Supreme Court career, she continued to work until the end of his life.
Ginsburg’s husband died of cancer in 2010. She is survived by her daughter, Jane C. Ginsburg, and son, James Steven Ginsburg.
A reassessment of Ginsburg’s groundbreaking career – and a heated competition for his Supreme Court seat – will undoubtedly follow his death. But how did Ginsburg want to be remembered?
“[As] someone who used all of her talents to do her job to the best of her ability, ”she told MSNBC’s Irin Carmon in 2015.“ And to help mend the tears in her company, to improve a bit things using whatever ability she has. “