Iconic U.S. Supreme Court Justice Left Legacy for Rights of Citizens – Especially Women
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a trailblazer. The second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court accomplished educational, personal and social feats unprecedented for the times.
Ms. Ginsburg, who died Sept. 18, 2020 at age 87, was sworn into office in 1993 after being nominated by President Bill Clinton. Her fervent fight for the rights of citizens – especially women – began in 1972 when she launched and led the Women’s Rights Project, a groundbreaking program of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“Ginsburg has been a pioneer for gender equality throughout her distinguished career,” according to a tribute by the ACLU, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary along with the women’s right to vote. “While singular in her achievements, she was far from alone in her pursuits and received much support from talented, dedicated women all along the way.”
Ms. Ginsburg attributed her passion for and pursuit of education to her mother Celia Bader, a factory worker in the New York City garment district. Ms. Bader toiled selflessly in a sweatshop to pay for her brother’s college tuition, an act that inspired the future justice to excel in academia, which she did at James Madison High School in Brooklyn, and to understand the value of hard work. Sadly, Ms. Bader died of cancer the day before Ms. Ginsburg’s graduation.
“My mother told me two things constantly,” Ms. Ginsburg told the ACLU. “One was to be a lady, and the other was to be independent. The study of law was unusual for women of my generation. For most girls growing up in the ’40s, the most important degree was not your B.A., but your M.R.S.”
Ms. Ginsburg enrolled in Cornell University, finishing in 1954 at the top of her class. That year, she married fellow law student Martin Ginsburg and had the first of their two children. In 1956, she enrolled in Harvard Law School where she was one of nine women in a student body of 500.
“I thought I could do a lawyer’s job better than any other,” she told the ACLU. “I have no talent in the arts, but I do write fairly well and analyze problems clearly.”
However, the treatment she and her female counterparts received at Harvard Law School forever shaped her feminism.
“One of only nine women at Harvard Law School in 1956, Ginsburg and her female classmates were asked by the dean why they were occupying seats that would otherwise be filled by men,” according to the ACLU. “Despite her discomfort, self-doubt, and misgivings, Ginsburg proved to be a stellar student, making law review at Harvard in 1957, and then again at Columbia Law School, where she finished her studies in order to keep the family together when her husband graduated from Harvard and accepted a job in New York. This major accomplishment at two top schools was unprecedented by any student, male or female.
“Upon graduating from Columbia in 1959, Ginsburg tied for first in her class,” according to the ACLU. “Still, when she was recommended for a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter by Albert Sachs, a professor at Harvard Law School, Frankfurter responded that he wasn’t ready to hire a woman and asked Sachs to recommend a man.”
Thanks to a proponent at Columbia Law School, Ms. Ginsburg finally landed a job clerking for U.S. District Judge Edmund Palmieri. The rest is history. The diminutive dynamo flourished against all odds, becoming a face not only for feminists but also for cancer survivors, having been diagnosed four times. Her death was caused by a recurrence of pancreatic cancer. In 2000, she cast a dissenting vote – one of four – in a majority decision that put then-Texas Gov. George Bush in the Oval Office. In 2002, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She was named one of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” by Forbes from 2004 through 2011. In 2013, she left her mark as the first supreme to officiate a same-sex-marriage ceremony.
“Justice Ginsburg proved time and again that she was a force to be reckoned with, and those who doubted her capacity to effectively complete her judicial duties needed only to look at her record in oral arguments, where she was, until her death, among the most avid questioners on the bench,” according to Oyez, a free legal organization funded by Cornell Law School and Chicago-Kent College of Law.
For all that Ms. Ginsburg stood for, for who she was and for what she did, it seems appropriate that a law student coined a nickname for her: “the notorious RBG”. Now, “notorious” is often thought of as a bad thing, but I prefer to think it refers to her as her opponents may have – in fear of her strength and intellect. People who admire “RBG” for standing up for regular citizens’ rights; for protecting our democracy and for defending our constitution, we would change that moniker to “the legendary RBG”. She will forever stand for those ideals we all hope we stand for and she fought hard to the end for each one of us whether we knew it or not.
The legendary RBG continues to torch a path, even in her death. She is the first woman to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. The high court issued a press release Sept. 19, 2020, in which Justice Elena Kagan stated: “To me, as to countless others, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a hero. As an attorney, she led the fight to grant women equal rights under the law. As a judge, she did justice every day – working to ensure that this country’s legal system lives up to its ideals and extends its rights and protections to those once excluded. And in both roles, she held to – indeed, exceeded – the highest standards of legal craft.”
We can only hope that every justice on the Supreme Court can stand for the ideals that Ruth Bader Ginsburg stood for – integrity, honesty and for the regular “Joe” toiling every day.
God bless you Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Rest in peace and go with your God.