Although Ruth Bader Ginsburg served on the highest court in the land for more than 27 years, she had been acquainted with the Supreme Court of the United States long before President William Jefferson Clinton nominated her to the bench in 1993.
Ginsburg first argued a case before the court in 1973. She represented the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a sex-discrimination case based on a policy stating that the wives of male military service members automatically received health and housing benefits, but that the husbands of female service members did not.
She won that case, and her path toward equitable treatment of people independent of sex had begun to reach its highest levels of legal jurisprudence. Ginsburg would go on to be widely known for supporting equitable treatment of people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexuality.
From an Early Age, Ginsburg Bucked Society’s Norms
Joan Ruth Bader was born on March 15, 1933 to Celia and Nathan Bader. As a child, Ginsburg was affectionately known as “Kiki” to family and friends. The Baders were a modest Jewish family residing in Brooklyn, New York. Kiki became known as a girl who strove for independence—with the support of her mother—at a time period when female independence from men was the exception as opposed to the rule.
Ginsburg lost her mother early in life to cancer at the age of 17. But true to her mother’s wishes, she continued with her education and earned her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in New York State. After graduation, she married her college sweetheart Marty Ginsburg, and she soon after gave birth to their first child.
After taking her husband’s surname while retaining her maiden name, Ruth Bader Ginsburg continued to buck societal trends. As a young mother to an infant, she earned acceptance into Harvard Law School—which only enrolled nine women out of 500 students in her class. While attending Harvard, she overcame constant challenges from male classmates who felt women were unfit to attend law school and that she was taking the spot of a more deserving male applicant. She persisted.
Eventually, Ginsburg and her husband moved to New York City, and she completed her studies at Columbia Law School, finishing first her class. Through perseverance, Ginsburg found a way to navigate the challenges that society placed in front of her, obstructing women from accomplishing their vocational goals.
Ginsburg’s Persistence Pushed Through Gender Barriers in Law
Ginsburg continued to face gender discrimination even after graduating at the top of her class from a well-respected law school. No one was initially willing to hire a woman, especially a mother, in the male-dominated field of law. But she remained undeterred.
Eventually, Ginsburg earned a clerkship with a U.S. district judge. Even with this addition to a stellar resume, she would only be offered jobs at competitive law firms for less pay than men. She rejected these offers. She persisted.
Ginsburg eventually became the first tenured woman to serve as a professor at Columbia University before she went on to direct the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU.
Her longtime friend, Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, M.D., shared, “Another iconic woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, once said: ‘You must do the thing you think you cannot do.’ Justice Ginsburg did just that. She broke down barriers. She demonstrated that to be an effective advocate—to make progress—you must harness your vision and passion for issues, stir with skill and persistence, and keep building to change the world. She taught us about courage, tenacity, and integrity.”
Ginsburg’s persistence did not go without notice. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals, where she would serve until her appointment to the Supreme Court 13 years later—receiving 96 Senate votes, with only three opposing her confirmation.
Ginsburg as a Change Agent for Sexual Equity in the Supreme Court
Justice Ginsburg stepped mightily into her seat on the court. While only standing 5 feet 1 inch tall, as only the second woman seated on SCOTUS in its history, her pointed questions during court arguments brought much attention.
She wrote the majority opinion in a case (United States v. Virginia, 1996) determining that a male-only admission policy at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. In her response to VMI’s argument that all-female military institutions existed and that women would damage its reputation, Ginsburg explicitly stated, “There is no reason to believe that the admission of women capable of all the activities required of VMI cadets would destroy the Institute rather than enhance its capacity to serve the more perfect.”
The status quo had allowed women to be relegated to certain roles in society and excluded from others. The influence of Ginsburg on SCOTUS helped reshape the American fabric toward improved gender equity. Imani Rupert-Gordon, who leads the National Center for Lesbian Rights, stated, “Her analysis and arguments helped build a foundation for the court’s recognition that sexual harassment, gender stereotypes, and paternalistic policies that exclude women from certain jobs or schools in order to ‘protect’ them violate the guarantee of equal protection, [and Ginsburg] was largely responsible for changing our collective understanding of equality to include a more expansive understanding of gender and discrimination.”
Ginsburg’s influence extended well beyond gender issues, as she shaped and re-shaped the law to be more inclusive of supporting other marginalized groups. For example, people living with brain health disorders had often been placed in mental health institutions away from society, but the Supreme Court—led by Ginsburg—supported the rights of differently abled individuals by stating that they should be allowed to live “in community settings rather than in institutions.”
How Ginsburg Became the Notorious RBG
Over time, Ginsburg came to represent more than an occasional deciding vote on a key issue facing the Supreme Court: She became an icon for civil rights.
This process had begun long before. Even while sitting for her Senate confirmation hearings, Ginsburg advocated for a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. She posited, “When a government controls [whether or not to bear a child] for [a woman], she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choice.” Pro-choice abortion advocates lauded her clear assertion that a woman always has control of what happens or does not happen to her body.
Furthermore, Ginsburg consistently sided with the LGBTQ+ community on fair and equitable treatment under the law. In 2013 alone, she joined the 5-4 majority of judges in striking down California’s Proposition 8 defining marriage as only between a man and a woman, as well as a 5-4 majority essentially eliminating the Defense of Marriage Act, which outlawed same-sex couples from receiving federal protections. Finally, in the 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges, she joined the majority that gave same-sex couples the fundamental right to marry.
Bamby Salcedo, an international civil rights advocate and the president and CEO of TransLatin@ Coalition, quipped, “We know that Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg has left an amazing legacy for all of us to always remember her by. What she has done for all of our movements is not just on the bench, but she has given many of us the possibility to create the changes that need to happen for all of us to have a better world to live in.”
Sexual Rights Advocates Vow to Be “Ruthless”
In the wake of Ginsburg’s death, a political fight is raging. Even though the presidential election is less than six weeks away, President Trump and Senate Republicans plan to rush to get a conservative judge on the Supreme Court to replace a consistently socially liberal one.
This rush to replace a justice right before the general election comes just four years after the Senate refused to consider President Obama’s selection for the court, Merrick Garland. That opening occurred more than 11 months before the election in 2016, after the unexpected death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia—who happened to be Ginsburg’s best friend on the court. In the fight over the refusal to consider Garland, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) famously said, “If there’s a Republican president [elected] in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said, 'Let’s let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.'”
Unfortunately, that statement has been put to the test. Like many other Republican colleagues who justified blocking Garland from a Senate hearing, Graham has reversed his decision, in an attempt to switch the seat from a liberal-minded judge to a conservative-minded one. With a clear majority of conservative justices on the Supreme Court, civil rights and environmental advocates fear the United States will roll back decades’ worth of earned protections, including the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act that insures over 23 million people.
The impact of the loss of Ginsburg on gender justice is not lost by today’s leaders. Dázon Dixon Diallo, M.P.H., the founder and president of SisterLove—a prominent women’s HIV and reproductive justice organization in the Southeastern U.S.—stated:
“Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a forever icon of feminist justice. While many will rightfully agonize over what we have lost with her death, I am still wrapping my grief in what she gave us. This woman, diminutive in physique and giant in upholding the rights and dignity of the most marginalized and oppressed, was a tour de force who fought for everything that matters to almost all of us. Now, it is up to us to be RUTHLESS and fight like hell to restore and protect everything that matters to everybody.”
There Is Hope in a Liberal Icon’s Friendship With a Conservative Stalwart
Ginsburg took pride in her strong friendship with Scalia. The two of them made for an odd pairing, seeing how they were diametrically opposed in nearly all controversial issues. However, they were able to bond through common loves of life, including travel and wine.
It may be true that they differed across the political spectrum, but they were able to use other bonds to enjoy each other’s company—even as they utilized their differences to challenge their own ways of thinking and refine their viewpoints. In a country that is often touted as being irreparably split in two, they found a way to love, enjoy, and truly respect each other.
“In every good marriage,” Ginsburg once counseled, “it helps sometimes to be a little deaf. I have followed that advice assiduously, and not only at home through 56 years of a marital partnership nonpareil. I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court of the United States. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”
While we grieve the loss of an iconic member of our society, R.A. Blumenthal reminds us that her friend “was a trailblazer, a champion for a legal system that will deliver justice and dignity for all of humankind. Justice Ginsburg was an iconic, treasured, and deeply respected role model and an historic figure. May her memory be a blessing and inspire future generations to work to ensure a fairer, healthier, and more peaceful country and world.”