Ruth Bader Ginsberg
A Justice of Historic Stature
When Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September 2020 in the midst of the tumultuous presidential election, many mourned her as an important voice for the legal rights of many, especially women. Called by one commentator a “demure firebrand who in her 80s became a legal, cultural and feminist icon,” she was also called a “justice of historic stature” by Chief Justice John Roberts.
Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn New York in March, 1933 where she attended local schools and excelled as a student—and also as a baton twirler. She graduated from high school and at 17 attended Cornell University on a full scholarship! That’s where she met Martin Ginsburg her husband-to-be. She said later: “What made Marty so overwhelmingly attentive to me was that he cared that I had a brain,”
After two years in Oklahoma where her husband had military service, they enrolled in the Harvard Law School, where she was only one of nine women in the program. Then as her husband was diagnosed with cancer, Ruth became his nurse and as he later noted, she was “…left with a three-year-old child, a fairly sick husband, the law review, classes to attend & feeding me.”
Mr. Ginsburg recovered and graduated. Ruth finished a year later at the top of her class. However, when she sought a position in a law firm she found that her gender excluded her from consideration. Yet with the encouragement and influence of a mentor, she obtained a New York judicial clerkship, and served in that position from 1959 to 1961.
In 1963 she took a teaching job at Rutgers law school, and when she became pregnant with her second child, she had to wear her mother-in-law’s clothes to hide her condition. However, apparently her subterfuge worked, and her contract was renewed before the baby was born.
One case she handled about this time proved the impetus to confront gender discrimination. A bachelor had been denied a tax deduction for caring for his elderly mother since at the time this was only permitted for women or divorced men. Mrs. Ginsberg’s argument was not to invalidate the law but just apply it equally to both genders. Lower courts agreed with her.
Another case came, when a man whose wife had died in childbirth sought Social Security survivor’s benefits, though the statute stated only widows could claim that benefit. “This absolute exclusion,“ Mrs. Ginsburg argued before the court, “based on gender per se operates to the disadvantage of female workers, their surviving spouses, and their children.” The Supreme Court ultimately agreed, as they did in most of her cases.
Another tactic she used, was to apply the Fourteenth Amendment to not just racial or ethnic minorities, but to women. Her point was that the words of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause applied to any “person.” “Well, that word, ‘any person’ covers women as well as men,” she said, “And the Supreme Court woke up to that reality in 1971.”
Appointed to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in 1980, she was then nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and she was approved by a 96-3 vote.
Though on the court she appeared small and frail, actually she was quite strong and active. She rode horseback into her 70s, went parasailing though did admit that her husband was the better cook.
She also believed her dissents were to be an opportunity to influence a future court. “Some of my favorite opinions are dissenting opinions,” she told National Public Radio at the time, “I will not live to see what becomes of them but I remain hopeful.” However, occasionally she did persuade some of the other justices, in the cases they were considering.
From 1999 to 2020 she had five bouts with cancer, while she kept a heavy speaking schedule, besides her court work. One time, in 2009 three weeks after surgery, she not only attended the State of the Union address but then was back on the bench.
Her husband passed away in 2010, and she continued her heavy schedule. She expressed many interests in opera, literature and modern art. However, as she put it, her work sustained her.
“I do think that I was born under a very bright star,” she stated in an interview, “Because if you think about my life, I get out of law school. I have top grades. No law firm in the city of New York will hire me. I end up teaching; it gave me time to devote to the movement for evening out the rights of women and men.”
She passed away of complications of her cancer in her Washington home surrounded by family.
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Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.