Remembering the Notorious RBG
Updated: Oct 20, 2022
Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent a lifetime thriving in the face of adversity and tirelessly fighting for equality and justice. The movement she inspired and the legacy she created has changed lives and inspired a generation of women to expect and fight for equality in society.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933, Joan Ruth Bader was the youngest of two daughters to her father, Nathan Bader, and mother, Celia Bader (née Amster). Her older sister, Marilyn, died a tragic death at the age of 6 from meningitis, when Joan was only 14 months old. When Joan started kindergarten, she began going by the name Ruth so that her teachers could distinguish her from the other Joans in her class.
Ruth’s parents played a very significant role in her life. They taught Ruth values and beliefs that she carried with her throughout life and were the foundation of much of her work. Her father, Nathan, was a Jewish immigrant from Odessa, Ukraine. During his childhood, Jews were not allowed admission to Russian schools, so he was deprived of an education. Celia Bader, Ruth’s mother, was born in New York to Austrian Jewish parents.
Although not devout, as a child, Ruth practiced Jewish traditions and some religious practices. A Jewish value, Tikkun Olam, was instilled in Ruth by her mother. Tikkun Olam is a concept that means to heal and repair the world. Ruth said “growing up Jewish, the concept of tikkun olam, repairing tears in the community and making things better for people less fortunate, was part of my heritage. The Jews are the people of the book and learning is prized above all else. I am lucky to have that heritage.” This Jewish value, among others, inspired her work as a lawyer and justice.
Ruth’s parents instilled a value of learning in her, despite neither of them attending college. Her mother was loving but strict and had two lessons that she repeated, ‘Be a lady and be independent.’ Ruth one said, “My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent. And for that, she meant, it would be fine if you met prince charming and lived happily ever after, but be able to fend for yourself”. Celia Bader fought cancer throughout Ruth’s high school career. She tragically passed away the day before Ruth graduated. Celia was a great influence on Ruth and taught her many values that shaped the woman that Ruth flourished to be.
Ginsburg went to Cornell on a full scholarship, where she met her future husband, Martin Ginsburg, in 1950. Ruth said, “He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain”. Ruth Bader excelled at Cornell and graduated top of her class in 1954 and married Martin ‘Marty’ that same month. After her graduation, she put her education on hold so they could start a family. Their daughter Jane was born on July 21, 1955, soon after her husband was drafted into the military for two years.
When Marty returned, Ruth Ginsburg was accepted into Harvard law school. She went to Harvard while simultaneously taking care of a 14-month-old baby. She was 1 of only nine women in a class of 552 students. Ginsburg was repeatedly told that she was taking the place of worthy men, and so had to work tremendously hard to prove that she was deserving of her position. During her first year, Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer. She took him to radiation, kept him up to speed with his studies, cared for him whilst looking after her young child and keeping up with her own studies too. She became the first woman to ever write for the Harvard law review, a pivotal student run journal. Throughout these difficult years she maintained her place at the top of her class. These struggles are a testament to her work ethic, her drive and her compassion. Ruth transferred to Columbia law school when Marty graduated from Harvard. She graduated top of her class from Columbia in 1959.
Despite her excellence in academia, not a single law firm in the whole of New York would employ her because of the heavy discrimination that existed in the workplace in this era. “I had three strikes against me. First, I was Jewish, and the Wall Street firms were just beginning to accept Jews. Then I was a woman. But the killer was my daughter Jane, who was 4 by then.” She finally found a position as a clerk to the U.S. District Judge Edmund Palmieri before doing work abroad. Upon returning to the United States, Ginsburg began teaching as a law professor in ‘Gender and the Law’ at Rutgers University. When she became pregnant in 1965 with their son, James, Ginsburg wore baggy clothes in fear that if she was found out, her contract would not be renewed. In 1972 she became the first tenured female faculty member at Columbia Law School, teaching a course on gender discrimination.
During the 1970s, Ginsburg was counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and directed their Women’s Rights Project. During her time at the ACLU, Ginsburg worked on over 300 gender discrimination cases, six of which were before the Supreme Court. Her strategy for tackling sex discrimination was to slowly chip away at discriminatory laws through smaller cases and build upon each case. Ginsburg used previous rulings on race discrimination cases and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which gives every person the equal protection of the laws. Many judges simply believed that gender discrimination did not exist as they thought that the laws in place were operating in women’s favour. Ginsburg learnt from her mother to never respond in anger and used her briefs as an opportunity to educate the fully male bench about the reality of gender descrimination: “The gender line helps to keep women not on a pedestal, but in a cage”.
Ginsburg’s first case in front of the Supreme Court was Frontiero v. Richardson in 1972. Sharron Frontiero was a second lieutenant in the American Air Force. She sought increased benefits for her dependent, her husband. Under the laws that existed, spouses of female members of the army were not eligible for dependent status unless they were dependent for over one half of their support. Ginsburg lost this case in the court of Alabama and so argued it in front of the Supreme Court. In her speech, she quoted American abolitionist Sarah Grimke, “I ask no favour for my sex, all I ask from our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks”. The Court found in favour of Frontiero in an 8-1 decision. Ginsburg made the case that gender discrimination should be treated like racial discrimination. This was a landmark decision that paved the way for many more progressive choices to be made.
Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld was a very significant case Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued in front of the Supreme Court in 1975. Stephen Wiesenfeld’s wife was their family’s primary earner. She died in childbirth, which left Wiesenfeld, the primary caregiver of their newborn child. He applied for social security benefits but was told he could not receive them. The Social Security Act provided benefits for only women with a deceased husband, so he was not eligible for the support. There was a unanimous judgement in favour of Stephen Wiesenfeld. This case was strategic as it showed the depth of sex discrimination in society and the profound range of impacts it has. Ruth Bader Ginsburg won 5 out of 6 cases she argued in front of the Supreme Court.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in Washington D.C. She served as a judge on this circuit for 13 years and often found consensus amongst her colleagues.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated for the United States Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton when Justice Byron White retired. Clinton was quoted in the New York Times, “I believe that in the years ahead she will be able to be a force for consensus-building on the Supreme Court, just as she has been on the Court of Appeals, so that our judges can become an instrument of our common unity in the expression of their fidelity to the Constitution.” She was endorsed unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee and then confirmed 96-3 by the Senate on August 3, 1993. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sworn in during the August 10, 1993 ceremonies and became the 107th Supreme Court Justice. She is the second female jurist, following Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, of four to be confirmed to the Court. Ginsburg authored over 200 opinions on the Supreme Court.
United States v. Virginia 1996 was the first women’s rights case Ginsburg heard in the Supreme Court. The Virginia Military Institute (VMI) was Virginia’s only male-exclusive high level learning institute. A female high school student wanted to attend VMI and sued this institute on the basis that its admission policy was unconstitutional. Virginia proposed the creation of a Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership, as an equivalent programme for women. The court found that these two institutes would offer “substantively comparable” levels of education. Ginsburg wrote the majority decision for this case, that the policy was in fact unconstitutional.
Ginsburg was seen as a part of the moderate-liberal bloc. As the bench has transitioned more ideologically conservative, Ginsburg had to voice more of her liberal opinion. It is standard for Supreme Court judges to say “I respectfully dissent” when they oppose a majority decision, but Ginsburg adopted the expression “I dissent” which has gained a lot of viral media attention. Some of Ginsburg’s most renowned cases have in fact been those in which she has dissented.
Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in 2006 was one of Ginsburg’s most famous dissents. Lilly Ledbetter was an employee of Goodyear Tire for nearly 20 years and consistently received low raises and rankings in comparison to her colleagues. The pay disparity was almost 40% below that of her male counterparts. She sued Goodyear for gender discrimination. Goodyear appealed on the basis that discrimination complaints had to be made within 180 days of the discimintory conduct. By a 5-4 vote, the Court ruled in favour of Goodyear. Ginsburg wrote a dissent and called for congress to undo this “improper interpretation of the law”. She worked with President Obama to sign his first bill in office, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, a copy of which hung in her office.
Throughout her time on the Supreme Court bench, Ginsburg struggled with her health and fought cancer five times. In 1999 she battled colon cancer and then an initial case of pancreatic cancer in 2009. She had a piece of her lung removed in 2018 before once again fighting pancreatic cancer shortly after. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on September 18, 2020 due to complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer. She fought hard and was adamant on staying on the Supreme Court Bench as long as she could “do the job full steam”.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg now has a legacy as both a legal and pop-culture icon. Fans started calling her the ‘Notorious RBG’ in 2013 as she became noted for her famous dissents. Her robes were iconic and some have symbolic meaning. When she first joined the bench, the robes were tailored to men’s suits. Ginsburg made a collar for herself and Justice Day O’Connor and since then has received numerous collars from around the world. She has a collar for majority opinion and a collar for a dissenting opinion. These collars have become renowned and used in countless viral images. The ‘Notorious RBG’ has become a media sensation, with many famous videos and memes being made about her dissents. Ginsburg has been portrayed by Kate Mckinnon on Saturday Night Live since 2015. Mckninnon does skits of iconic Ginsburg expressions and makes fiery statements she calls ‘Ginsburns’. ‘Can’t Spell Truth Without Ruth’ and ‘RBG’ the documentary were released in 2018 and highlighted the tremendous life and accomplishments Ginsburg had. Ginsburg has had a profound impact on a multitude of demographics, and is an amazing role model for the younger generation of women.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has received a great deal of recognition for her work. In 2002, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She received an Honorary Doctorate of Law from Princeton University, Harvard University and Willamette University. Ginsburg was named Time’s Magazine 100 Most Influential People (2015) and Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year (2012).
The work that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has done for equal rights and progress in society is unparalleled. She is an ambassador for social justice, human rights and equality and is a role model for people across the world. Her legacy will continue to live through the movement she inspired, the work she accomplished and the lives she has changed. “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you”.