Rest in Power, RBG
In her own words, about how she’d like to be remembered, Ruth Bader Ginsberg described herself as "Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has. To do something, as my colleague David Souter would say, outside myself.”
Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a fighter for equality and justice, passed away on Friday, September 18, at the age of 87. RBG inspired generations of young female and male activists through her pioneering advocacy for women’s rights and equality under the law. Serving as the second ever female justice on the Supreme Court, her groundbreaking stances against gender discrimination not only made her a long-lasting hero and symbol for equality, but noticeably altered how women are perceived and treated in the United States.
In her younger years, RBG was known for her soft spoken and reserved nature. She grew up in a working class family in Brooklyn and learned from her mother’s selflessness and dedication to morality. "My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent." Much of Ruth’s belief that it’s crucial for women to be represented in positions of power came from her admiration for her mother and the discrimination Ruth faced in her early academic life. RBG graduated from Cornell University at the top of her class and married Martin Ginsburg in the same year. She and Martin both studied law at Harvard, but she was overlooked as one of only nine female students in a 500 person class. Her classmates and professors often chided her for taking the place of eligible males because she was studying during one of Harvard’s first years accepting females for the law program.
As if her life wasn’t already challenging enough, her husband, Martin, fell ill with cancer during his time in law school. RBG had to balance caring for her sick husband and her new child, taking notes for Martin, and continuing her own studies at Harvard Law. She has reflected on that time in her life as a crucial stage in the development of her lifelong resilience and commitment to law. RBG decided to transfer and graduated at the top of her class from Columbia Law School. Despite her clear knack for practicing law, she experienced unfair gender bias from the start of her career. Martin landed a job at an NYC law firm fresh out of law school, while RBG, the more academic of the two, struggled to find any firm to hire her.
Always quick to adapt, she became an esteemed professor of law at Rutgers and Columbia Universities.
While working as a professor, RBG volunteered at the ACLU, a non profit organization founded to protect the individual rights granted under the laws of the Constitution. She quickly established herself as a leading member of the organization and headed the Women’s Rights Project. As co-director of the project, she argued six monumental cases before the Supreme Court about gender inequality and won five of them. RBG employed patience, powerful persuasion, and logic to convince the all-white male Supreme Court about the importance of gender equality.
Ginsberg’s main goal throughout her time as a member of the ACLU and as a Supreme Court justice was to convince the rest of the panel and the public that the laws for equality in the Constitution also applied to women. Although this task may seem simple at first glance, the other Supreme Court justices were completely unconcerned about laws, or the lack thereof, regarding gender equality. The 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection was assumed to apply only to the issue of race, not gender, and RBG took it upon herself to extend those laws of equality enshrined in the Constitution to everyone.
As the ACLU director for the Women’s Rights Project, RBG wrote Sally Reed’s brief in the Reed v. Reed Supreme Court case. Leading up to the case, Sally Reed and her husband sought to take control of a certain estate that was left in the wake of their son’s death. Her husband was initially granted rights to the land because the Idaho Probate Code stated that "males must be preferred to females" in appointing administrators of estates. RBG fought on behalf of Sally by challenging the Idaho code’s discrepancies with the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court voted unanimously for RBG and her path to fighting gender inequality within the Supreme Court System had begun.
In 1993, President Clinton appointed Ginsburg to the Supreme Court after she had served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. In the beginning of her time as a justice, she was expected to be a quiet peacemaker between moderate Democrats and Republicans, but her positions became more liberal over time as the Court shifted right. Her judicial style was always exceedingly professional and resolute and she even befriended some justices with opposing viewpoints, such as Justice Antonin Scalia. She advocated for gender equality, workers’ rights, the LGBTQ+ community, separation of church and state, voting rights, immigration, affirmative action, and racial equality. She brought forth and supported many landmark cases for the gender equality movement.
In 1996, RBG wrote the Supreme Court’s historic decision in United States v. Virginia regarding the Virginia Military Institute’s refusal to admit female students. The Military Institute pushed for the creation of a women-only academy to satisfy their breach of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, but RBG helped secure a 7-1 win for the United States by stating that the women’s facility would not provide them with the same opportunities as the male version. She continued fighting for underrepresented groups such as disabled people, victims of pollution, and criminals receiving unfair fines at the local and state levels.
Ginsburg chose to recruit more people to her fight by using her teaching skills and calm, steady manner. She believed that much of the inequities in the law were based on unintended bias and assumptions by men rather than outright animosity toward women. In 1998 RBG said, “The justices did not comprehend the differential treatment of men and women in jury selection and other legal contexts as in any sense burdensome to women.”
Ginsberg’s fight for equality and justice took yet another turn as she began writing more dissenting opinions as the Supreme Court moved increasingly to the right. She famously dissented in the 2000 Bush v Gore case when she argued against the majority’s decision to halt the presidential election recount in Florida. Although she lost this case and many other cases for which she presented the dissenting opinion, her powerful arguments exposed flaws in the political system and suggested ways to improve upon them.
She strongly believed that it was crucial to maintain laws put in place to protect mistreated groups of people. In the Shelby County v. Holder case of 2013, the majority of the court voted to end the 1965 Voting Rights Act (which guarded against voter suppression) because they believed that the problem had been effectively solved. RBG passionately opposed this decision, saying that, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes, is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” In this case and in many others, Ginsberg stuck to her moral compass and steadily defended her stance against the majority.
Although RBG appeared unshakable and nearly invulnerable on the Court, she dealt with many sorrows in her personal life. In 2010, Martin, her lifelong partner, first supporter and best friend, died of cancer. During Justice Ginsberg’s time on the Court, she also overcame numerous health challenges, including colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, heart surgery, tumor removals from her lungs, and even injuries from falls. Despite these struggles, RBG rarely missed even one day in court and remained adamant about continuing to serve, pushing aside calls to resign from both sides of the political spectrum.
Later in her life, RBG became a social media sensation, as millenials and gen-Zers idolized her for her achievements on the Supreme Court and for her good humor and resilience. Justice Ginsberg appeared on Saturday Night Live and wrote a memoir that inspired the documentary RBG. She also acquired the nickname “Notorious RBG” as a reference to the rapper “Notorious BIG,” in honor of her refusal to back down in the face of social or political pressure and her spirited dissents.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg will be remembered for her legal crusade for women’s rights and for paving the way for generations of activists. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Our nation has lost a justice of historic stature, (and) we at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague.” RBG stands as one of the most influential figures in the fight for gender equality and for justice regardless of a person’s background. She touched the lives of millions around the country, and her tireless efforts as a student, mother, spouse, professor, attorney, and judge were marked with honor. Her legacy will undoubtedly continue to inspire countless people for generations to come.