In March 1933, Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her mother, Celia, a garment factory worker, instilled a love for education into the youngster, opting to forego her own education in order to fund her own son’s college expenses. Unfortunately, Celia died from cancer the day before her daughter’s high school graduation; however, Joan went on to study and flourish at Cornell University, graduating in 1954 at the top of her class.
Shortly thereafter, she married her husband, Marty, and had her first child, a daughter, in 1955, right after her husband was drafted for two years of military service. Upon Marty’s return, Ruth, as she preferred to be called, enrolled in Harvard Law School, alongside Marty, who was working on a law degree as well. It wasn’t an easy route. Ruth was one of only nine female law students in a 500-student class. She became the first female member of the Harvard Law Review, a fact with which some of her male cohorts were less than thrilled.
Further, during the time she was working on her degree, Ruth’s husband Marty developed testicular cancer, and the new wife, mother, and student had to balance her schoolwork with his schoolwork, her maternal duties, and her care for her husband. Later, Marty recovered, and they moved to New York, where she finished her legal degree at Columbia Law School, graduating at the top of her class in 1959 and serving on the law review there as well.
We later came to know this small but formidable woman as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the illustrious, ground-breaking Supreme Court Justice who died last week at 87. After a battle with pancreatic cancer, she passed on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, symbolic, perhaps, because of Ginsburg’s strong Jewish faith and the idea that when a person happens to die on the holiday, they are celebrated as a “tzaddik,” a “person of great righteousness.”
Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, but by that time, if she had done nothing further, she had already accomplished a significant number and scope of influential legal successes. However, how did a young, unknown lawyer—especially a female in a seemingly male-dominated world at the time—change the world?
Easy—yet not so easy. As New York Times writer Linda Greenhouse pointed out this week, Ginsburg had vision. She was able to see the world not as it was but as she would like it to be. Then she worked diligently to make those aspects a reality. What was so different at that time? What about that world was not comfortable or welcoming to Ginsburg—and to so many other women?
First, because of Ginsburg’s status as a woman, she was refused clerkship opportunities and was, like many other women of the area, subject to gender pay inequity, denied the same pay as men in positions where she held equal qualifications. In 1972, Ginsburg founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, participating in close to 300 sex discrimination cases. Six of them ended up going before an all-male Supreme Court. Ginsburg won five of those six cases.
Also, in the 1970s, Ginsburg’s team advocated for equal gender preferences in estate disputes, as well as equal military spousal benefits, along with Social Security benefits for widowers, as they were available at the time only to widows. Her team went on to fight for women to be able to obtain credit cards and loans in their own names, sans a male co-signer, and pushed against pregnancy discrimination issues for women in the workplace. She fought for the constitutionality of state-funded schools, such as the Virginia Military Institute, to admit women.
In Oklahoma, they helped overturn a law that set the drinking age for men at 18 and at 21 for women. And for women who have recently been called to jury duty, you might want to thank Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who helped make that opportunity possible in order to make jury service, optional for women at the time, more gender-diverse in her argument in the 1979 case Duren v. Missouri.
Was she a social revolutionary? A radical? Although it may seem so, no, she wasn’t. The male-dominated status quo might not have stomached such Constitutional revolution. Remember that the Constitution makes no mention of women, and had she moved in that fashion, Ginsburg would likely never have been successful. At 5’1” in height, she was small in stature, and, likewise, she also introduced modifications in small, incremental turns, not in quick, overarching ways. She moved slowly and helped implement bite-size changes, but over time, those shifts have been sweeping, monumental.
Ginsburg ultimately became a cultural icon, known as “Notorious RBG”—a play on the late rapper Biggie Smalls’ “Notorious B.I.G.” name. She obtained that moniker in 2013, after second-year New York University law student Shana Knizhnik dubbed her as such on a Tumblr page—and it went viral and stuck within the sphere of the general public.
Knizhnik’s reference was intended to highlight her own frustration at the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case, voiding a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Ginsburg had written a stinging dissent, an act for which she also became so notorious that “I dissent” became a buzz phrase closely associated with the Justice.
Now in light of the passing of Ginsburg, the first woman to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol, we celebrate the life and accomplishments of someone who may have been diminutive in size but was a trailblazing, larger-than-life legal giant and a humanitarian. She even drew in those who seemed diametrically opposed to her stances on abortion and marriage equality, such as her conservative colleague and friend, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who greatly admired her and was often photographed publicly in her company.
Ginsburg once said, "When I'm sometimes asked 'When will there be enough (women on the Supreme Court)?' and my answer is: 'When there are nine.' People are shocked. But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that.’” Ultimately, she changed laws. Hopefully, she changed perspectives as well.