In Her Own Words: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

In Her Own Words: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

September 19, 2020
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a trailblazing lawyer, activist, and role model, becoming only the second female justice sworn onto the Supreme Court, where she served until her passing at the age of 87. The second woman to be appointed to the highest court in the land and its longest-serving Jewish justice, Ginsburg had a long history of dissenting with oppression and fighting for equal rights, earning her the moniker Notorious RBG.

Born Joan Ruth Bader in New York City in 1933, Ginsburg grew up in a Jewish family. Her older sister died when Ruth was only a year old, and her mother became a fierce advocate for Ruth’s education. Her greatest wish was to see her daughter go on to college and become a teacher. Tragically, Ginsburg’s mother died, after a long struggle with cancer, the day before her high school graduation. Ginsburg went on to attend Cornell University that fall, where she studied government and met Martin Ginsburg. The two married after Ruth’s graduation and moved to Oklahoma.

Martin was supportive of Ruth’s ambitions from the beginning of their relationship, especially as she experienced discrimination based on her gender in the early years of their marriage. While in Oklahoma, Ruth worked for the Social Security Administration and was demoted from her position when she became pregnant with her daughter. When the Ginsburgs returned to New England, Ruth enrolled at Harvard to study law, as one of only nine women in a class of 500. Women were not especially welcome at Harvard Law, with the dean of the school reportedly asking them why they were taking the place of a man. Ginsburg didn’t stay there long. Her husband accepted a job in New York City, and she transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated, tied for first in her class, in 1959.

Ginsburg struggled to find employment in her early years as a lawyer. Most firms and judges withheld positions from women, no matter how qualified, in favor of hiring men. Ginsburg pursued various clerkships from federal judges and was denied, despite strong recommendations from her law professors. Finally, one professor promised to never recommend another student again unless Judge Edmund Palmieri hired Ginsburg. He did, and she worked for him for two years before returning to Columbia to become a research associate in international law. Her work led her to study in Sweden, where an impressive 20% of women made up law classes, and she studied a female judge who worked while pregnant. This experience was formative for Ginsburg, who returned to the US and worked as a law professor at Rutgers, where she was paid less than male colleagues but achieved tenure.

In 1971, Ginsburg was a key figure in launching the Women’s Rights Project with the American Civil Liberties Union. She then served as their general counsel, and argued many cases before the Supreme Court. During her time with the ACLU, she picked her cases—and her plaintiffs—very carefully. She was a staunch advocate for gender equality, but she knew she couldn’t reverse discrimination in a single case. Instead, she charted a strategic path with her cases to establish precedents that would alter the court’s views on gender discrimination, often taking the time to argue for both men and women in order to prove that gender discrimination harmed everyone.

Ginsburg was nominated to the US Court of Appeals in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter, serving in the District of Columbia. It was around this time that she became friends with Justice Antonin Scalia, despite their political and idealogical differences. Their friendship would last until his death in 2016. She was known as a moderate during this time, which was a factor in her appointment to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. She became the second female Supreme Court Justice and the first female Jewish justice. In her early days as a justice, Ginsburg was notably cautious in her stances and rulings, preferring to build slowly on precedence rather than rush quickly into new laws.

After Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired in 2006, Ginsburg became the only sitting female justice, and the oldest member of what was known as the liberal bloc of justices. As such, she was often tasked with writing the dissenting opinion when the majority conservative justices outvoted the liberal justices. It was around this time that Justice Ginsburg became more forceful in her writing and her opinions. As a justice, she supported abortion rights, equal pay, gender equality, and same-sex marriage, and was instrumental in many landmark decisions and known for her firm and often fiery dissents.

Justice Ginsburg was also known for her strong personality. Upon becoming a justice, she favored the French style of robes rather than the traditional American style, garnering particular attention for her lace collars, known as jabots. She collected many from around the world, even stating that she reserved a special jabot for delivering her famous dissents, and a favored jabot for delivering majority decisions. Her fitness regime, which enabled her to do 20 push-ups at the age of 80, was the basis for a book. Her activities, work, and tenacious spirit inspired films, documentaries, and books and audiobooks for all ages. In 2016, she released My Own Words, a collection of her writing, speeches, and rulings from over the years. The audiobook is performed by Linda Lavin and includes archival recordings of Justice Ginsburg herself reading rulings and speeches, making her historic progress accessible and personal.

Tirzah Price is a writer and contributing editor at Book Riot.

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