“Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1933-2020
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1933-2020
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or RBG as she was affectionately known, was the second ever female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the first female member of the Harvard Law Review and the first tenured female professor at Columbia School of Law. She was a pioneering lawyer during the 1970s when she directed the influential Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, leading the fight against gender discrimination. In this capacity, she successfully argued six landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Ginsberg’s most famous case and lasting legacy took place in 1996, when she wrote the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in United States v. Virginia, which held that the Virginia Military Institute could not refuse to admit women. When she died in 2020, the Supreme Court issued a press release stating “Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature…a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”
Ginsburg was born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, to a working-class Jewish family. Her father was a furrier, and her mother, who had not had higher education, encouraged her bright daughter in school. Sadly, her mother died of cancer the day before Ginsburg’s high school graduation.
She went on the graduate top of her class at Cornell 1954, marrying her husband, law student Martin Ginsburg, whom she described as “the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.” Martin did two years of military service, and Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School. They had their first child, but Martin soon became sick with cancer. During those years Gisburg juggled young motherhood with caring for a husband sick with cancer, all the while maintaining her position at the top of her class Harvard, one of just nine women in a class of 500, having to constantly justify her position there.
The family moved to New York where her husband practiced law and Ginsburg transferred to Columbia School of Law, again graduating first in her class. Even so she had difficulty finding a suitably-paid position as a woman, and ended up clerking for two years before moving to Sweden to study civil procedure. Ginsburg then embarked on a successful teaching career at Rutgers (where she still felt the need to hide her pregnancy) and at Columbia.
Jimmy Carter appointed her to the Court of Appeals in 1980, where she served until Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1993. She was known for being serious, soft-spoken and shy, and famously used colloquial language in her judgements, presumably so everyday people could understand them. She had an incredible work ethic, and exercised daily with a personal trainer at the Court’s gym; it was said she could bench press more than some of her male colleagues.
Together for 56 years, Ginsberg’s marriage was a metaphor for her pioneering work in gender discrimination. Her husband once described their secret to marital success this way: “My wife doesn’t give me any advice about cooking and I don’t give her any advice about the law.”