As you have likely heard or read already, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has passed away at the age of 87 due to complications from cancer. A pioneer and revolutionary for women's rights and only the second woman appointed to the supreme court, she will be mourned, and missed by many.
Born in Brooklyn, Ruth Bader went to public schools, where she excelled as a student... and as a baton twirler. By all accounts, it was her mother who was the driving force in her young life, but Celia Bader died of cancer the day before the future justice would graduate from high school.
Then 17, Ruth Bader went on to Cornell University on a full scholarship, where she met Martin (aka "Marty") Ginsburg. "What made Marty so overwhelmingly attractive to me was that he cared that I had a brain," she said. After her graduation, they were married and went off to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for his military service. There Mrs. Ginsburg, despite scoring high on the civil service exam, could only get a job as a typist, and when she became pregnant, she lost even that job.
Two years later, the couple returned to the East Coast to attend Harvard Law School. She was one of only nine women in a class of more than 500 and found the dean asking her why she was taking up a place that "should go to a man."
At Harvard, she was the academic star, not her husband. The couple were busy juggling schedules and their toddler when Marty Ginsburg was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Surgeries and aggressive radiation followed. "So that left Ruth with a 3-year-old child, a fairly sick husband, the law review, classes to attend and feeding me," Marty Ginsburg said in a 1993 interview with NPR.
The experience also taught the future justice that sleep was a luxury. During the year of her husband's illness, he was only able to eat late at night; after that he would dictate his senior class paper to her. At about 2 a.m., he would go back to sleep, Ruth Bader Ginsburg recalled in an NPR interview. "Then I'd take out the books and start reading what I needed to be prepared for classes the next day."
Marty Ginsburg survived, graduated and got a job in New York; his wife, a year behind him in school, transferred to Columbia, where she graduated at the top of her law school class. Despite her academic achievements, the doors to law firms were closed to women, and though recommended for a Supreme Court clerkship, she wasn't even interviewed.
A mentor, law professor Gerald Gunther, finally got her a clerkship in New York by promising Judge Edmund Palmieri that if she couldn't do the work, he would provide someone who could. That was "the carrot," Ginsburg would say later. "The stick" was that Gunther, who regularly fed his best students to Palmieri, told the judge that if he didn't take Ginsburg, Gunther would never send him a clerk again. The Ginsburg clerkship apparently was a success; Palmieri kept her not for the usual one year, but two, from 1959-61.
Ginsburg's next path is rarely talked about, mainly because it doesn't fit the narrative. She learned Swedish so she could work with Anders Bruzelius, a Swedish civil procedure scholar. Through the Columbia University School of Law Project on International Procedure, Ginsburg and Bruzelius co-authored a book.
In 1963, Ginsburg finally landed a teaching job at Rutgers Law School, where she at one point hid her second pregnancy by wearing her mother-in-law's clothes. The ruse worked; her contract was renewed before her baby was born. While at Rutgers, she began her work fighting gender discrimination.
Her first big case was a challenge to a law that barred a Colorado man named Charles Moritz from taking a tax deduction for the care of his 89-year-old mother. The IRS said the deduction, by statute, could only be claimed by women, or widowed or divorced men. But Moritz had never married. The tax court concluded that the Internal Revenue Code was immune to constitutional challenge, a notion that tax lawyer Marty Ginsburg viewed as "preposterous." The two Ginsburgs took on the case — he from the tax perspective, she from the constitutional one.
According to Marty Ginsburg, for his wife, this was the "mother brief." She had to think through all the issues and how to fix the inequity. The solution was to ask the court not to invalidate the statute but to apply it equally to both sexes. She won in the lower courts. "Amazingly," he recalled in a 1993 NPR interview, the government petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, stating that the decision "cast a cloud of unconstitutionality" over literally hundreds of federal statutes, and it attached a list of those statutes, which it compiled with Defense Department computers. Those laws, Marty Ginsburg added, "were the statutes that my wife then litigated ... to overturn over the next decade."
In 1971, she would write her first Supreme Court brief in the case of Reed v. Reed. Ruth Bader Ginsburg represented Sally Reed, who thought she should be the executor of her son's estate instead of her ex-husband. The constitutional issue was whether a state could automatically prefer men over women as executors of estates. The answer from the all-male Supreme Court: no.
It was the first time the court had struck down a state law because it discriminated based on gender. And that was just the beginning.
By then Ginsburg was earning quite a reputation. She would become the first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School, and she would found the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
As the chief architect of the battle for women's legal rights, Ginsburg devised a strategy that was characteristically cautious, precise and single-mindedly aimed at one goal: winning. She liked Social Security cases because they illustrated how discrimination against women can harm men. For example, in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, she represented a man whose wife, the principal breadwinner, died in childbirth. The husband sought survivor's benefits to care for his child, but under the then-existing Social Security law, only widows, not widowers, were entitled to such benefits.
"This absolute exclusion, based on gender per se, operates to the disadvantage of female workers, their surviving spouses, and their children," Ginsburg told the justices at oral argument. The Supreme Court would ultimately agree, as it did in five of the six cases she argued.
Over the years, Ginsburg would file dozens of briefs seeking to persuade the courts that the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection applies not just to racial and ethnic minorities but to women as well. "The words of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause — 'nor shall any state deny to any person the equal protection of the laws.' Well that word, 'any person,' covers women as well as men. And the Supreme Court woke up to that reality in 1971," Ginsburg said.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter named Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Over the next 13 years, she would amass a record as something of a centrist liberal, and in 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court, the second woman appointed to the position.
Once on the court, Ginsburg was an example of a woman who defied stereotypes. Though she looked tiny and frail, she rode horses well into her 70s and even went parasailing. At home, it was her husband who was the chef, indeed a master chef, while the justice cheerfully acknowledged she was an awful cook.
Though a liberal, she and the court's conservative icon, Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016, were the closest of friends. Indeed, an opera called Scalia/Ginsburg is based on their legal disagreements, and their affection for each other.
Over the years, as Ginsburg's place on the court grew in seniority, so did her role. In 2006, as the court veered right after the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Ginsburg dissented more often and more assertively, her most passionate dissents coming in women's rights cases.
Ginsburg always kept a backbreaking schedule of public appearances both at home and abroad, even after five bouts with cancer: colon cancer in 1999, pancreatic cancer 10 years later, lung cancer in 2018, and then pancreatic cancer again in 2019 and liver lesions in 2020. During that time, she endured chemotherapy, radiation, and in the last years of her life, terrible pain from shingles that never went away completely. She is admired for her grit. In 2009, three weeks after major cancer surgery, she surprised everyone when she showed up for the State of the Union address.
A year later her psychological toughness was on full display when her beloved husband of 56 years was mortally ill. The day after Marty's death, the justice was on the bench, reading an important opinion she had authored for the court. She was there, she said, because "Marty would have wanted it."
In the years after her husband's death, she would persevere without him, maintaining a jam-packed schedule when she was not on the bench or working on opinions. Her work ethic was unparalleled and her legal crusade for women's rights was what ultimately led to her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Architect of the legal fight for women's rights in the 1970s, Ginsburg served 27 years on the nation's highest court, becoming one of its most prominent members.