By Phillip Powell
Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87 on September 18th of 2020 from pancreatic cancer. She died an American hero and resolute champion of human rights. Her story is filled with struggle, discrimination, love, triumph, and the tireless pursuit of justice for all. It is the most American of American stories, and it started in Brooklyn. RBG was born into a working-class Jewish family in 1933. She attended James Madison High School, where she excelled academically. Her mother, Celia Bader, was extremely impactful on RBG’s life. Celia taught Ruth the values of education and independence. Celia couldn’t attend college herself because her parents decided to send her brother instead of her. She worked in a factory to help her family save up for her brother’s education, and this act of selflessness was deeply inspiring to Ruth. Unfortunately, Celia would pass away from cancer a day before Ruth’s high school graduation.
RBG attended Cornell University and (unsurprisingly) graduated first in her class. The very same year she graduated, she married her husband and life-long partner, Marty Ginsburg. Marty was a law student, but soon after their marriage, the young couple moved to Oklahoma where Marty was called on active duty in the military. Ruth worked for the social security office in Oklahoma but was demoted after becoming pregnant with their daughter Jane.
RBG arrived at Harvard Law in 1956, where she was one of nine female students in a class of five hundred and dealt with a hostile male-dominated environment. The Dean of Harvard Law even chastised her and the other female students for taking spots that he claimed should have gone to men. Hardship struck the young family when Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer that same year. Ruth cared for their young daughter, her sick husband, and took notes for her husband’s classes, all while keeping up with her studies. Fortunately, Marty Ginsburg recovered, and Ruth transferred to Columbia Law after Marty found work in New York. She graduated at the top of her class in 1959 as the first woman to be part of both the Harvard Law Review and the Columbia Law Review.
Ginsburg struggled to find employment in the legal field after her graduation, with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter rejecting her from a clerkship due to her gender. Ginsburg landed a clerkship with District Court Judge Edmund Palmieri in the southern district of New York — only after a Professor at Columbia Law told Palmieri that he would never send him a clerk again if he didn’t take on Ginsburg. After clerking for Palmieri, Ginsburg learned Swedish to write a book with a Swedish lawyer when she worked with The Project on International Procedure at Columbia Law School. Ruth’s career continued when she became a Professor at Rutgers University Law School. She became the first female professor to receive tenure at Rutgers, and shortly after she received tenure, she began teaching a pioneering class on gender discrimination.
By 1971, RBG was a volunteer attorney for the ACLU, and she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU the year after. Ginsburg served as the founding director of the program throughout the 1970’s. She wrote the brief for Reed v. Reed in 1971 when the Supreme Court expanded the Fourteenth Amendment protections to women and set the precedent that gender discriminatory laws should be challenged. Between 1973 and 1976, Ginsburg argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court and won five of them. Ruth continued her work with the Women’s Rights Project until she was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter. Her reputation on the U.S. Court of Appeals was that of a centrist who preferred incremental progressive change. She served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for thirteen years until President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court in 1993.
In fact, she had even criticized Roe v. Wade in the past as being too expansive a decision because it acted as a focal point for an opposition movement to abortion rights. Ginsburg believed it fueled the “right-to-life” movement and turned state legislatures against abortion rights. When she was being considered for the Supreme Court by President Clinton in 1993, many activists took these comments to indicate that Ginsburg didn’t necessarily believe the right to choose was a fundamental right. Oh, how wrong they were. Ginsburg would later write a scathing dissent in Gonzales v. Carhart when the Supreme Court upheld a federal restriction on abortion. She also said in her Supreme Court hearings that, “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. …When Government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg became renowned as an abortion-rights activist.
Ginsburg was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 96 to 3 and became the second woman (and first and only Jewish woman) to be confirmed to the Supreme Court. One of the first major decisions RBG authored was the decision in United States v. Virginia in 1996. In this decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions violated the Fourteenth Amendment and must be integrated to allow women to attend. In 1999, Ginsburg also wrote the majority opinion in Olmstead v. L.C. when the Supreme Court ruled that mental illness and disability is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. In 2000, Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion in Bush v. Gore, where she argued that the recount should not have been stopped.
RBG quickly became renowned for her powerful dissenting opinions on the Supreme Court. She dissented in Gratz v. Bollinger in 2003 that ruled affirmative action at the University of Michigan unconstitutional. One of Ginsburg’s more famous dissents was in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear case when Lilly Ledbetter argued against pay discrimination from her employers. The Supreme Court ruled against Ms. Ledbetter. arguing that women who were victims of pay discrimination had a very narrow window to challenge pay discrimination. In this case, Ginsburg’s dissent led to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first law President Obama signed, and a law that made it much easier for victims of pay discrimination to sue. Of course, Ginsburg was also instrumental in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision that established marriage equality as the law of the land. Despite RBG’s trailblazing on women’s rights and minority rights, it is widely viewed that her most powerful dissents were in cases of voting rights.
RBG viewed three cases that occurred in her last decade on the Supreme Court as the cases in which the court did the most harm throughout her tenure: Citizens United v. FEC (2010), Shelby County v. Holder (2013), and Rucho v. Common Cause (2019). Ginsburg dissented in all three of these cases that allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, as well as dismantled the Voting Rights Act, and barred the federal courts from doing anything to stop partisan gerrymandering.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and career exemplified the constant and tumultuous fight for justice and equality for all. She lived a life of activism as a feminist lawyer and Supreme Court Justice. This activism extended through her personal life in a marriage that embodied gender equality when most marriages did not. Marty Ginsburg passed away in 2010 from cancer and was famously quoted on his relationship with Ruth: “My wife doesn’t give me any advice about cooking, and I don’t give her any advice about the law.” The day after his death, Ruth was at work at the Supreme Court for the last day of the 2010 term, saying that Marty would not have wanted her to miss it. Last month this country lost an icon, who for so many young people made America a more just place in which nothing would be out of reach for them. Rest in power, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
This article was featured in the Issues Issue. Check out the Issues Issue in its full glory here.