Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not just an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court; she is a woman who has defied stereotypes her entire life. Even now, at the age of 85, one can find her doing her daily push-ups, planks and squats in the gym with her personal trainer, who describes her as ‘like a cyborg…a machine’. RBG survived two bouts of cancer, holds two Ivy League school degrees and is about to gain worldwide attention from the upcoming film, ‘On the Basis of Sex’, due to be released this December. Nevertheless, all this still pales beside her staggering achievements in changing the face of US law and society, as an unshakeable yet softly spoken fighter for gender equality who doesn’t pull any punches.
RBG was born as Joan Ruth Bader on March 15th 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, to Jewish parents. Affectionately known as ‘Kiki’ by her family since she had been a ‘kicky’ baby, she later began to be known as ‘Ruth’ at school once her mother discovered that her daughter’s class had several other girls named Joan. From an early age, Ruth was forced to cope with personal loss, with the death of her elder sister Marylin occurring when she was only fourteen months old, and later, the death of her mother, Celia, one day before Ruth’s high school graduation. Celia’s influence in RBG’s life is still strongly felt – RBG has often said that Celia was perhaps the most intelligent person she ever knew. Celia easily graduated from high school with top grades, but her parents only had big dreams for her brother, and RBG felt her mother’s disappointment at being confined to a housewife role acutely throughout childhood. After Celia passed away, RBG discovered that she had quietly scraped together eight thousand dollars for her daughter’s education – the education that she herself had missed out on. This lit a fire within RBG to follow her mother’s wishes: always be a lady, always be independent, study hard and succeed in life. And that’s what she did – RBG was accepted into Cornell University, and graduated in 1954 with a degree in government as the highest-ranking female student in her class.
After meeting Marty Ginsburg at Cornell and marrying him days after her graduation, the couple both made it into Harvard Law School. There were only nine female students in the year, RBG being one of them, and they found themselves dealing with blatant discrimination and disdain within this male-dominated world. One evening in 1956, the Harvard Law School dean questioned outright how each of the female students could justify taking the place of a man. RBG was hence constantly reminded that she didn’t belong at Harvard, with some professors even holding ‘Ladies’ Day’, where they would call only on women in class with deliberately humiliating questions. Regardless, RBG made the prestigious Harvard Law Review – something that her husband hadn’t managed – and eventually transferred to Columbia Law School to accompany Marty, who was starting a new job in New York. Predictably (or anything but), she made the Law Review a second time and graduated in joint first place in her class.
Despite her glittering academic record, RBG found it hard to secure employment – in 1960, she was rejected for a clerkship position in the Supreme Court due to her gender, even though she had the backing of a strong recommendation from Professor Sacks (and later dean) of Harvard Law School. Eventually, RBG’s Columbia Law School professor Gerald Gunther pushed for Judge Palmieri of the Southern District of New York to hire her as a clerk, going so far as to threaten to never send Palmieri another clerk if he didn’t give RBG a chance. RBG eventually left her clerk position to undertake comparative study of Swedish and American law in Stockholm, and was struck by the relative liberation of women there – they could not only work without being sneered upon, but also fight back at unfair conditions, end a pregnancy if they felt they had to, and reject prescribed gender roles. This was yet another experience that was to play a huge part in shaping RBG’s life and career.
On her return from Sweden, she accepted a teaching job at Rutgers University, and eventually was promoted to full professor in 1969. The security of tenure ultimately allowed RBG to explore new interests and avenues – beginning with the co-founding of the Women’s Rights Law Reporter the following year, which was the first law journal in the US to focus exclusively on women’s rights. Later, in 1972, RBG co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). As director of the project, RBG relentlessly pursued a series of cases with the aim of convincing the Supreme Court that sex discrimination not only existed, but also violated the Constitution. In one of her earliest anti-discrimination cases, Reed v Reed (1971), RBG succeeded in establishing that an Idaho law giving preference to men over women in the administration of estates violated the Equal Protection clause in the Constitution. In court, RBG quoted Sarah Grimke: ‘I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.’ The justices were stunned into silence. People were starting to listen.
I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks
In Weinberger v Wiesenfeld (1975) she highlighted her commitment to equality for both men and women. In this case, RBG argued that the Social Security statute discriminated against male survivors of workers by denying them the same protection as their female counterparts – whilst widows could claim benefits while caring for minor children, widowers could not. ‘Just as the female insured individual’s status as breadwinner is denigrated, so the parental status of her surviving spouse is discounted’, RBG wrote. Twisting the knife further, she claimed that the young son involved in this case was another victim of a law that ‘includes children with dead fathers, but excludes children with dead mothers’.
RBG made the transition from social activist to judge after being nominated by President Carter in 1980 to a seat on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. From there, President Clinton nominated her as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 1993 – a position she has held to this day with steely determination, defying expectation that she would have retired years earlier. During her confirmation hearing, RBG proclaimed her staunch pro-choice views, saying that it was ‘essential to woman’s equality with man that she be the decision maker…if you impose restraints that impede her choice, you are disadvantaging her because of her sex.’ She has consistently stuck by these values, having helped strike down Nebraska’s partial-birth abortion law in 2000 and parts of Texas law that restricted abortion services in 2016. However, United States v Virginia (1996) stands out among RBG’s other cases on the Supreme Court, being a landmark case in which the men-only admission policy at Virginia Military Institute was struck down. Writing for the majority, RBG stated that no law or policy should deny women ‘full citizenship stature – equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities’.
RBG’s work has helped women make significant legal advances in the US, with her victories in court discouraging legislative bodies from treating women and men differently. She has amassed a huge fan base in the US, yet her achievements are not so well known here in the UK, or indeed in other countries across the world. Although she may not seem relevant to our own judiciary, she is undoubtedly a legal figure that will be admired for generations to come, and has arguably played a part in guiding society as a whole towards a more compassionate, fairer future. As someone who was way ahead of her time, and continues to uphold progressiveness and liberalism, RBG is changing the face of law and fighting against the stereotype that it is a male-dominated, rigid profession. With the eponymous RBG documentary already out and a blockbuster movie starring Felicity Jones yet to come, it is clear that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has no intention of fading into obscurity.