Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Joan Ruth Bader Ginsburg (March 15, 1933 – September 18, 2020)[1] was an American lawyer and jurist who served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1993 until her death in 2020.[2] 

She earned her bachelor’s degree at Cornell University and married Martin D. Ginsburg, becoming a mother before starting law school at Harvard, where she was one of the few women in her class. Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated joint first in her class.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Columbia academic regalia.
Columbia University, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During the early 1960s she worked with the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure, learned Swedish, and co-authored a book with Swedish jurist Anders Bruzelius; her work in Sweden profoundly influenced her thinking on gender equality. She then became a professor at Rutgers Law School and Columbia Law School, teaching civil procedure as one of the few women in her field.

In the fall of 1956, Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School, where she was one of only 9 women in a class of about 500 men.[21][22] The dean of Harvard Law reportedly invited all the female law students to dinner at his family home and asked the female law students, including Ginsburg, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?”[a][14][23][24] When her husband took a job in New York City, that same dean denied Ginsburg’s request to complete her third year towards a Harvard law degree at Columbia Law School,[25] so Ginsburg transferred to Columbia and became the first woman to be on two major law reviews: the Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review. In 1959, she earned her law degree at Columbia and tied for first in her class.[13][26]

In 1972, Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and in 1973, she became the Project’s general counsel.[18] The Women’s Rights Project and related ACLU projects participated in more than 300 gender discrimination cases by 1974. As the director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, she argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976, winning five.[30] 

Rather than asking the Court to end all gender discrimination at once, Ginsburg charted a strategic course, taking aim at specific discriminatory statutes and building on each successive victory. She chose plaintiffs carefully, at times picking male plaintiffs to demonstrate that gender discrimination was harmful to both men and women.[30][40] 

The laws Ginsburg targeted included those that on the surface appeared beneficial to women, but in fact reinforced the notion that women needed to be dependent on men.[30] 

Her strategic advocacy extended to word choice, favoring the use of “gender” instead of “sex”, after her secretary suggested the word “sex” would serve as a distraction to judges.[40] She attained a reputation as a skilled oral advocate, and her work led directly to the end of gender discrimination in many areas of the law.[43]

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where she served until her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993.

President Jimmy Carter with Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Reception for Women Federal Judges, 10/3/1980
Series: Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Photographs , 1/20/1977 – 1/20/1981. Collection: White House Staff Photographers Collection, 1/20/1977 – 1/20/1981, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

She was nominated by President Bill Clinton. Ginsburg was the first Jewish woman and the second woman to serve on the Court, after Sandra Day O’Connor.

Announcement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as Nominee for Associate Supreme Court Justice at the White House
National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Senate confirmation hearing for her appointment to the Supreme Court
R. Michael Jenkins, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During her tenure, Ginsburg wrote notable majority opinions, including United States v. Virginia (1996), Olmstead v. L.C. (1999), Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc. (2000), and City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York (2005).

Between O’Connor’s retirement in 2006 and the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor in 2009, she was the only female justice on the Supreme Court. During that time, Ginsburg became more forceful with her dissents, notably in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007). Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion was credited with inspiring the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009, making it easier for employees to win pay discrimination claims. Ginsburg received attention in American popular culture for her passionate dissents in numerous cases, widely seen as reflecting paradigmatically liberal views of the law. She was dubbed “The Notorious R.B.G.”, and she later embraced the moniker.[4]

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” Wikipedia, Accessed 19 Mar. 2022.

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Listen to this episode from What It Takes on Spotify. In tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has died at the age of 87, we are re-posting this episode. It originally aired in September of 2016. Justice Ginsburg tells the very personal story here of her lifelong pursuit of justice and equality for women.

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