Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a polarizing force, challenged the establishment fighting for equality. Ginsburg would spend her career as an advocate and an iconic feminist.
A democracy is only as strong as its consistency, processes, and the will of its citizenship. Preserving a democracy ensures that the foundation of our way of life is safely reinforced by sound, fair law.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a legal powerhouse, a scholar of the constitution, and protector of those who had little place in society throughout her 87 years of life. On September 18, 2020, Ruth lost her battle with cancer after a long and brutal fight. This is a celebration of the great dissenter, may her memory be a blessing.
Early Life and the Journey Through Law School
A tried a true New Yorker, Ruth Bader was born into a working-class family in Brooklyn on March 15, 1933. Her mother, Ceila, taught Ruth the importance of education, perseverance, and independence. Sadly, she lost her mother the day before she graduated from high school.
After high school, Ruth attended Cornell. She finished with a bachelor’s in government where she was first in her class. Notably, even at this juncture, Ruth was among only a few women who attended the university. She married Martin Ginsburg, and their first child was born in 1954.
In 1956 she joined eight other women in her class at Harvard. The lessons Ruth learned at Harvard were more than what a classroom could teach. Ruth learned early about inequality, and this fortified her resolve. The memories she held and the struggles she faced as a young mother and a law student built a foundation of strength. The dean of Harvard Law asked a now widely known question that Ruth so candidly shared.
Why are you here occupying a seat that could be held by a man?Slate Interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Published July 21, 2020
She would prove ownership of that seat in the decades to come as she finished law school. After transferring to Columbia University, she raised her daughter, took Martin’s classes while he grappled with cancer, and remained the backbone of her family. Ruth would move on to take landmark cases in women’s rights and gender equality.
Frontiero v. Richardson and the Road to the Supreme Court
Sharon Frontiero served in the United States Airforce, and she asked a simple question: why is my husband not entitled to the same benefits that other military spouses are entitled to? She did not receive the customary basic assistance for housing that other service members received. Ginsburg answered and argued this 1973 equal pay case in front of the Supreme Court and set the stage for a deluge of equal pay rulings in favor of gender equality. The court listened. The verdict favored Frontiero, and she received the funding that she and her husband deserved.
Ruth was perceptive enough to understand that if she proved that there was inequality that effected males, she could demonstrate to the court that gender inequality existed. Ginsburg ended her prepared statement with a quote from abolitionist Sarah Grimke. The quote held the power to set the tone for her entire career.
I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.Ruth B. Ginsburg, Frontiero v. Richardson 1973
Ruth tested that war cry in other cases before the Supreme Court until she joined the Supreme Court herself in 1993. Justice Ginsburg would, within three years of her nomination, earn the Thurgood Marshall Award. Ginsburg established, over time, a sort of quiet, consistent approach to law. Her decisions remained focused on the goal of establishing equality rather than expanding the reach of the law. Ruth understood that the constitution was clear. She created thoughtful, but powerful, legal precedence in her decisions. Many of her decisions would help carve a place for women into the American landscape.
Careful, Calculated, and Wise
Justice Ginsburg’s early career met milestones nearly under the radar. Frontiero was argued while Roe v. Wade was decided. Ginsburg had already established a foothold for Roe v. Wade to be successful. Although, ironically, Ginsburg would share over the years that Roe v. Wade was a sloppy decision.
During a lecture and interview at the University of Chicago School of Law, Ginsburg spoke openly about some of her decisions and interpretations over the years. A dominant theme was Roe v. Wade. The assumption from the crowd was that Ruth would be resoundingly in favor of Roe. In true Ginsburg fashion, she surprised the crowd.
“My criticism of Roe is that it seemed to have stopped the momentum on the side of change,” Ginsburg said. She would’ve preferred that abortion rights be secured more gradually, in a process that included state legislatures and the courts, she added. Ginsburg also was troubled that the focus on Roe was on a right to privacy, rather than women’s rights.Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2013
A fierce feminist, Ginsburg chose to make calculated points. Over the years, she didn’t miss a single case discussion until 2018 when she fell ill and battled cancer. In the Chicago School of Law discussion, Ruth made it a point to teach, as she so often did. She noted the importance of precedent, opinion, and decision.
When I wrote briefs I wanted to give the court something it could convert into an opinion.Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 2013
Female law students who walked the path that Ruth helped blaze for them were engaged in the audience. She used her forum to speak about change. She told the women present:
Now all the doors are open, but we haven’t come all the way.Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2013
Social Justice, Patriotism, and a Legacy
Ginsburg impressed upon her community the importance of equality. For women, Ruth became an icon and a hero. For others, Ginsburg was a villain. Regardless of your belief system, Ruth was consistent and drew her sense of fairness from the constitution. She attempted to correct inequalities through judiciary ruling. She delivered opinions that would help shape the United States.
Justice Ginsburg was regarded as a patriot, a servant of the republic. She was a tireless fighter. In a biographical documentary RBG, her children spoke of her dedication. Her daughter, Jane, shared how her father used to warn Ruth two hours before dinner to come home from work. An hour later, he would tell her it was time to go home. After dinner, Martin would visit her chambers and find her working, having forgotten about dinner. Ginsburg was so focused that her children credit her work ethic with their own drives. However, the family does joke that she was a wonderful lawyer but a terrible cook. Refusing to participate in the Harvard cooking competition for women in those earlier days did her culinary skills no service!
Justice Ginsburg never lost sight of her goals. She fought through illnesses, rarely missing decisions and discussions, she reared two children, helped her husband through his cancer as a young man, earning both his and her law degrees. Justice Ginsburg endured loss, suffered tragedies, and still, she rose. May her legacy muster strength and progress in these most trying times in our nation.
May we all rise and greet the fight with as much zeal and commitment as Justice Ginsburg. The mantle of equality still deserves a fire and a force. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the notorious RBG, will live on in the spirit of those of us who weaponize dissent. Oyez, oyez, oyez!
- Biography. (2020, July 17). Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Retrieved September 19, 2020, from https://www.biography.com/law-figure/ruth-bader-ginsburg
- “Frontiero v. Richardson.” Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/1972/71-1694. Accessed 18 Sep. 2020.
- Heagney, M. (2013, May 13). Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit: University of Chicago Law School. Retrieved September 19, 2020, from https://www.law.uchicago.edu/news/justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-offers-critique-roe-v-wade-during-law-school-visit