Born March 15, 1933 to her father, a Jewish emigrant from Odessa, Ukraine and her mother, born in New York, who had Polish parents, was Joan Ruth Bader. She dropped Joan, at her mother’s request because it was too common a name in her school and it caused confusion. Ruth lost her 6-year-old sister to meningitis when she was still a baby of 14 months.
Ruth looked up to her mother, Cilia Bader, who took education very seriously. She was quite involved in Ruth’s education and had graduated high school at the age of 15. Celia was not able to further her education because the family could not afford it. They chose to send their son to college. Celia knew Ruth had amazing potential and vowed to provide more opportunity for her daughter than she had been afforded. She wanted Ruth to become a history teacher. She encouraged Ruth her whole life. Celia had been ill during Ruth’s time in high school. She was so proud of her daughter, but did not see Ruth graduate, as she succumbed to her cancer they day before Ruth was to graduate high school.
Ruth had plenty of her own ambition. She was attending Cornell University when she met Martin Ginsburg, also a law student. She was a member of Alpha Epsilon Phi. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in government at first in her class in 1954 and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She and Martin married a month after graduation. Martin was drafted shortly thereafter and served two years, he had been an ROTC Officer in the Army Reserve. They moved to Fort Still, Oklahoma. Ruth worked at the local Social Security Administration. She was demoted in 1955 because she had become pregnant. Their daughter, Jane, was born later that year. Upon completion of Martin’s service, they both enrolled at Harvard Law School. Ruth was 1 of 8 women in a class of roughly 500. It was a male dominated in environment that was hostile toward the women. At a social event in his home for the female students, the Dean of Harvard Law, is said to have asked each of them, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” During Martin’s third year there, he underwent treatment for testicular cancer. He recovered and graduated, then taking a job in New York City and Ruth transferred to Columbia Law School, later becoming the first woman to be on major law reviews: Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review. She graduated, tied for first in class, from Columbia Law School in 1959.
Dealing with gender discrimination in employment, she had an uphill climb in starting her career. She was able to secure a position clerking for U.S. District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri. From 1961 to 1963, she was a research associate, following she became an associate director of the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure. She worked with Anders Bruzlius to co-author a book for Lund University in Sweden; she had to learn Swedish for this project. Her time in Sweden heavily influenced her ideas regarding gender equality as she saw 20- 25% of the law students were female and she witnessed a judge still working at 8 months pregnant. In 1963 she transitioned to teach mainly civil procedure law as a professor at Rutgers University Law School. She was told that she would be paid less than half what her male colleagues made, partially due to her husband’s income. She would later file a class action law suit with the ACLU and win over this issue, (working with them to create the national Women’s Rights Project late in 1971). Her son, James, was born in September 1965. She was one of under twenty female law professors in the United States and made tenure in 1969. In 1970, she co-founded the first law journal in the U.S that focused exclusively on women’s rights, the Women’s Rights Law Reporter.
Then, in 1972, she moved to a position at Columbia Law School and became their first female tenured professor and coauthored the first law school casebook on sex/gender discrimination. She co-founded and served as the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and argued six landmark cases regarding gender equality before the U.S Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976, winning five. In 1975, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld determined that widowers (men) caring for survivor children, were also entitled to Social Security benefits; before this, payments had only been made for widows (women). Ginsburg made the argument that Section 402(g) of the Social Security Act discriminated against Stephen Wiesenfeld by not providing him with the same survivors’ benefits as it would to a widow. The Supreme Court decision was 8 -0 (Douglas abstained) in favor of providing equal benefits regardless of gender. She followed this with a year, 1977-78, as a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences with Stanford University. She continued to teach at Columbia until 1980.
President Jimmy Carter nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that had been opened by the passing of Judge Harold Leventhal. She was confirmed by the United States Senate on June 18, 1980, receiving her commission later that day. She served there until August 9, 1993, when she was elevated to the United States Supreme Court. She was confirmed by the Senate with a vote of 96 – 3. She had been nominated by President Bill Clinton to replace Justice Byron White. The suggestion for her nomination came from Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. She was seen as a moderate. The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary rated her as “well qualified”, their highest rating for prospective justices. She was the first Jewish justice since 1969 and the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court. She brought a strong voice for gender equality, worker’s rights and separation of church and state. Ginsburg wrote many decisions for the Supreme Court; in 1996 she wrote the decision for United States v. Virginia, which was a landmark case that determined the state-supported Virginia Military Institute could not refuse admission to women. In 1999, she was presented with the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award due to work and contributions toward gender equality and civil rights. Ruth Bader Ginsburg characterized her performance on the court as a cautious approach to adjudication. In a speech shortly before her nomination to the Supreme Court, “[m]easured motions seem to me right, in the main, for constitutional as well as common law adjudication. Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped, experience teaches, may prove unstable.” Others described her as a jurist who seeks to build cautiously on precedent rather than pushing the Constitution towards her own vision.
Upon the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, Ginsburg became the senior member of the more “liberal wing”. Due to her seniority, she often had the authority to assign authorship of the dissenting opinion. She was a proponent of the liberal dissenters speaking “with one voice’. She dissented in Ledbetter v. Goodyear (2007) in a 5-4 decision where the majority determined the statute of limitations starting to run on each pay period, even if the women where unaware that they were underpaid. President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2008 as a response to Ginsburg’s call to Congress to amend Title VII to undo the court’s decision. She championed for women’s rights and women’s healthcare saying, “This is something central to a woman’s life, to her dignity. It’s a decision that she must make for herself. And when government controls that decision for her, she’s being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.” She defended privacy, children, little girls, in Safford Unified School District v. Redding (2009), where a 13-year-old girl was stripped to her underwear to be searched by school officials. The court agreed 8 – 1 that the school went too far; Ginsburg and Stevens thought that besides holding the school responsible, the individuals involved could as well. The same year in Herring v. United States, Ginsburg again dissented from the court’s decision to not suppress evidence that was tied to a police officer’s failure to update a computer system. She saw suppression as a means to prevent the government from profiting from mistakes, to preserve judicial integrity and respect civil rights. She argued that making police pay a high price for mistakes would encourage them to be more cautious and take greater care in handling matters.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attracted quite a bit of attention with her dissenting opinion in Bush v. Gore, which determined the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. The court sided with Bush. She tactfully and deliberately ended her decision saying, “I dissent” rather than the traditional, “I respectfully dissent.”
Ruth and Martin were married for 56 years, until his death due to cancer on June 27, 2010. She loved him dearly and fondly remembered him as ”the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.” Martin is quoted for saying, “My wife doesn’t give me any advice about cooking and I don’t give her any advice about the law.” She also had a collection of lace jabots from around the world. She had a black and gold one with faceted stones that she wore when issuing her dissents. When issuing a majority opinion, she wore a yellow and cream one with crystals; it was a gift from her law clerks. She served on the United States Supreme Court for 27 years. She passed away on September 18, 2020.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg left with one final statement that she wanted the American people to hear.
Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court would be a disaster for our country and our movement. Add your name if you agree: the Senate must do all they can to delay the nomination process.