Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent a lifetime flourishing in the face of adversity.
She was a champion of equality.
Ruth was born on March 15, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. Ruth entered our world during a revolutionary time, women were beginning to be noticed in the workforce and yet our society had no idea impact her birth would have on our future. During this time some females recognized included; Jane Addams being the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, Amelia Earhart making the first transcontinental nonstop flight in 1932 and in 1933 Frances Perkins being the first female member of a presidential cabinet.
“My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent”
Ruth often noted her mother as a major influence in her early life, teaching her the value of independence and proper education. Ruth lost her mother to cancer the day prior to her high school graduation. Ginsburg didn’t succumb to this loss, instead she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Government from Cornell University in 1954, finishing first in her class; this same year she married Martin D. Ginsburg a rising law student. In 1956, RBG enrolled in Harvard Law School where she was one of nine women among 500 men, her husband Martin one of them. Martin and Ruth bore their first child early in their marriage, forcing Ruth to learn to balance life as mother and law student and following her husband’s cancer diagnosis Ginsburg attended class, taking notes for both of them, typing her husbands dictated papers and caring for both their daughter and her sick husband. Nonetheless, Ginsburg excelled academically, becoming the first female member of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. Upon Martin’s graduation from Harvard Law School he accepted a position at a New York law firm; joining her husband in New York City, Ruth transferred to Columbia Law. Here she was elected to the school’s law review and she continued on to graduate first in her class in 1959. Ruth entered the workforce and persevered despite ongoing workplace discrimination, and soon she was awarded the first female tenured professor at Columbia University. During the 1970’s Ruth served as the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, for which she argued six landmark cases on gender equality before the U.S Supreme Court.
“Women belong in all places where decisions are made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”
Ruth was a pioneer for women’s rights and gender equality long before her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court and it far exceeded the courtroom. Every individual achievement Ruth accomplished paved the way for women in both education and employment for decades to come. In 1980. President Carter appointed RBG to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Ruth served there until she was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 by President Clinton. Ruth was only the second female to be appointed to the Supreme Court Justice when she took the oath for office on August 10, 1993.
Despite unknowingly paving the way for women throughout her educational excellence and ongoing employment achievements; Ruth’s greatness had only just begun. Ruth changed the lives of millions as a lawyer and as a jurist by dismantling barriers to employment, education and roles in families/society based solely on gender, while also showing how law can be a tool used to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice. Without Ruth’s impact, today we as women would not have the right to sign a mortgage without a male, the right to have a bank account without a male co-signer, the right to employment without discrimination based on our gender and the right as a woman to work while pregnant or raising children. Ruth’s notable cases included the United States v. Virginia (her majority opinion held unconstitutional the Virginia Military Institutes practice of excluding qualified women from admission based on gender), Ledbetter v. Goodyear (pushed Congress and President Barack Obama to sign Equal Pay Legislation in 2009), Shelby County v. Holder (2013 decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965), as well as many cases defending women’s reproductive freedom by fighting to protect Roe v. Wade, supporting same-sex marriage. Ruth showed her support for same-sex marriage not only in the courtroom but by officiating same-sex marriages. She then went on to challenge arguments against this in the early proceedings of Obergefell v. Hodges which led to legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
“I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability”
Ruth wrote opinions that championed the fight for equality, she lived in service of justice and humanity. RBG displayed intellect, strength and confidence that allowed each of us to believe in ourselves, to find our voice and acknowledge our contribution to this world. Ruth earned her place in history as a civil rights hero.
Ruth showed in her lifetime that it is possible to build deep and meaningful relationships with people despite severe disagreements or views. During our current time of social and political division we must all take note of and learn to adopt the practice of Justice Ginsburg.
Ruth’s legacy begs us to begin to re-examine the role of the Supreme Court (and the overall legal system) as it is not to engage in debates around abstract or purely intellectual legal propositions – the law is about the people, their lives, their aspirations. Ruth practiced with a lens of how the law impacts actual people. Attorneys who use the law to promote social justice, as Ruth did, are mindful to the humanistic aspect of this work. In today’s world we are so easily lost in the steps of the role, the formalities, or our own individual goals and how to get ahead. Ruth’s practice and influence is transferable among so many professionals; physicians are not practicing medicine but rather caring for individuals. Myself in social work it can be so easy to get lost in the systems I am functioning within however I must never lose focus of what the true meaning of the work is, the human beings.
I grew up in a household that encouraged me to be true to myself. I grew into a woman who stands firm in her beliefs, I strive to progress myself and I hold the values of my profession as my own. I admire Ruth in her perseverance, her ability to overcome anything perceived to be in her way and with an unwavering grace. Ruth held her head high and never hesitated to be true to herself and her values. Ruth is one of the strongest role models for female professionals, a reassurance that we can stay true to who we are, we can stand up for ourselves, we can achieve our goals. Ruth proved to us that there is nothing we cannot overcome, she taught me that my heart and my passion is enough to light my path.
“So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune”
RBG defined resilience. Ruth allowed nothing to defeat her, not personal hardships, loss, or experiencing gender discrimination throughout her educational and professional career. Ruth lost her mother, a major influence in her life at an early age, she lost her husband Martin in June 2010 following a lengthy battle with cancer. None of these impacted her success, she never succumbed to hardship, she continued to progress with grace. Ruth herself battled colon cancer, lung cancer, and pancreatic cancer in her lifetime with a poise to be admired.
Ruth was a powerful example of someone who lives their beliefs and is not afraid to voice them. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the age of 87 due to complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer.
She will be greatly missed and long remembered.
“Women’s rights are an essential part of the overall human rights agenda, trained on the equal dignity and ability to live in freedom all people should enjoy.”