Agree with her or not, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, fondly known by her “rock star” status as RBG, was a giant in the world of justice and law. Even keeled and unmovable in her ideals, she served on the Supreme Court for 27 years. Attempting to sum up this woman is like trying to put a genie back in the bottle. It’s impossible, because her life was multi-dimensional, and just when I thought I knew everything there is to know about her, I discovered more.
RBG was born in Brooklyn at a time when women’s lives were predetermined between marriage, motherhood, or secretary. No matter how many women attended university or colleges, they could never put their foot in the door let alone enter the room. But RBG broke the mold on timidity and challenged everyone and everything that stood in her way. According to biographers and interviewers, RBG gave credit to her mother for inheriting tenacity genes. Unfortunately, Ruth’s mother died the day before Ruth graduated from High School.
Ruth’s determination toward success started at 17, when she received a full scholarship to Cornell University. There she met her soon-to-be husband, Marty. He fell in love with her because “she had a brain”. When Marty joined the service they moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Ruth took the civil service exam, but her high scores were irrelevant and she could only get a job as a typist. When she got pregnant, true to form, she lost her job.
Two years later, both she and her husband returned to the East Coast and were admitted to Harvard Law School. It was tough for the nine women who were “accepted” amid 500 men. At one time, the Dean asked Ruth why she would allow herself to take a place that “should go to a man”. This gave Ruth the incentive to become an academic star. She outpaced her husband.
Juggling law school, a toddler, and a household; Ruth took on life with a vengeance. When Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ruth became his caregiver; he dictated his law assignments which she typed well into the night. After which she would start with her own studies. In a 1993 interview, Marty marveled at his wife who had taken care of a three year-old, a sick husband, and attended classes. Marty survived the cancer and graduated. When he got a job in New York City, Ruth transferred to Columbia University Law School, where she managed to graduate top of her class.
But being a woman lawyer did not exactly open doors to employment opportunities. Although recommended for Supreme Court Clerk, she was not even interviewed. In an all male judge pool, females, especially married ones were not welcomed. They were presumed distracted by family obligations. But Ruth had a mentor and law professor who believed in her ability to achieve. Gerald Gunther was renowned in finding the best court clerks for judges. One particular judge was Judge Palmieri. Palmieri demanded the best, and Gerald sent him Ruth, with the proviso that if he didn’t give her a chance he would not send Palmieri any future clerks. The bait was taken, and Ruth clerked with Palmieri for two years.
RBG was a prolific woman who found ways that would enhance either her work or her life. She went through lengths to accomplish a project or an opportunity. When at Columbia, she learned Swedish. She wanted to work with Anders Bruzelius, a Swedish Civil Procedure Scholar who was writing a book through the Columbia University School of Law Project on International procedure. RBG ended up co-authoring the book.
In 1963, RBG landed a teaching job at Rutgers Law School. She was also pregnant with her second child. Knowing full well that she would be fired, she hid her “bump” under her mother-in-law’s clothes. She landed a second contract with the school before the baby was born. It was at Rutgers that Ruth started her gender discrimination crusade.
Her first big case she nicknamed “The Mother Brief”. At that time the IRS only recognized women’s claims for tax deduction for taking care of elderly family members; widowed men, or divorced individuals were disqualified. A Colorado man, Charles Moritz, had been caring for his 89 year-old mother without eligibility for tax deductions because of his single male status. The Internal Revenue Code stated that Charles’ status was immune to Constitutional challenge, at which Ruth replied “preposterous”. She teamed up with her husband and they tackled the case on both fronts. Her husband took on the tax perspective while Ruth took on the Constitutional aspect of the case. The case was won in lower courts by asking the courts not to invalidate the statute but to apply it equally for both sexes. Eventually the government petitioned the US Supreme Court on the unconstitutionality of hundreds of federal statutes. For the next 10 years, Ruth litigated all of them.
In 1971, she delivered her first Supreme Court brief in Reed v Reed. Ruth represented Sally Reed who was asking to be the executor of her son’s estate. Once again the law automatically discriminated against women executors giving the right automatically to Sally’s ex-husband. Ruth litigated on the constitutionality of a State that automatically prefers men over women as executors of an estate. The Supreme Court ruled in Ruth’s favor and struck down the law as discriminatory toward women.
Ruth became the first tenured professor at Columbia University. She founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Her object in life was winning women’s rights. She knew that she had to approach her ideals by persuading men that equality was a fundamental right for everybody. She took on cases with male plaintiffs to demonstrate that discrimination against women can often harm men. In Weinberger v Wiesenfeld, Ruth represented a man whose wife had died in childbirth. She had been the sole breadwinner. Her husband was seeking survivor’s benefits to raise his son. But existing Social Security laws did not recognize widowers as eligible survivors, only widows. She litigated that absolute exclusion against female workers harmed their spouses and their children. The Supreme Court agreed. Throughout her career and litigations, Ruth argued that the 14th Amendment was not only about race and ethnicity, but also about women.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed RBG to the US Courts of Appeal for the District of Columbia Circuit. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court. She was not his first choice. He was being pressured by women activists who were critical of her stand on abortion. She had publicly criticized the legality of Roe v Wade. A small fact that is conveniently ignored. She was confirmed in an overwhelming vote of 96-3. She became the second woman on the Supreme Court next to Sandra Day O’Connor.
Although small and demure, RBG had an appetite for life that astonished those around her. She rode horses and parasailed into her 70’s. Her closest friend was Judge Antonin Scalia, her conservative counterpart who passed away in 2016. Their unusual friendship spawned an Opera, Scalia/Ginsburg based on their legal disagreements and ultimate affection for one another. They both had brilliant minds and their strong friendship was sustained through their respect for each other.
Over the years she rose to the Supreme Court seniority, but her passion was and remained; women’s rights. Her soft demeanor but sharp wit and mind won over conservative judges to her side especially in important cases. Such a case was the 2015 court’s decision to uphold independent redistricting commissions established by voter referendum. This was aimed at removing partisanship legislative district lines.
In Burwell v Hobby Lobby, Ruth gave the dissent on for-profit companies’ non compliance with the mandate that they provide contraception as part of their employees’ health plan. Hobby Lobby fought the case under “religious grounds”. She based her argument on their argument. How far can “religious grounds” go? Can an employer deny equal pay or minimum wage under a religious claim? It was this unrelenting tenacity that won her the respect of her fellow judges on both side of the aisle.
Starting in 1999, Ruth fought with colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, and liver lesions. Yet through it all she never shirked her job or gave less of her life. In 2009, just three weeks after a major pancreatic cancer surgery, she sat at the State of the Union address. When her husband died, she was back on the bench the next day. He left her a letter of encouragement before he died. Years later she admitted that she had gone to work “for him”. He would have wanted her to.
Chief Justice John Roberts described her as a “tireless and resolute champion of justice”. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a revolutionary. In 1996, she took on the Virginia Military Institute for not allowing women cadets to apply. Her scathing remarks were to the point; “rigorous training should not ban women from the same opportunities”.
RBG had a sense of humor and found it easy to laugh at herself. During the 2015 State of the Union address she was caught napping on camera. She admitted that she had succumbed to wine at dinner which relaxed her. She also admitted that she was not entirely a “sober judge”.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg will always be remembered for her razor sharp mind. But she will also be remembered for her unabashed belief in women’s rights. Her arguments and dissents albeit fraught with judicial verbiage that most of us don’t understand, asked one scathing question: Why not? Why can’t a woman be that or do that? I can’t say that I have always agreed with her dissents, but I respected the arguments and passion behind them. She fought for those who were systematically and legally excluded from opportunities on basis of gender. She fought for us. RBG was genuine. Judge Thomas summed her up succinctly: she was the “essence of grace, civility and dignity”. Rest in Peace RBG. Aleha ha-Shalom.