Ruth Bader Ginsburg mural on U Street, Washington, D.C.
United States / Supreme Court

The Life and Contributions of the Notorious RBG

In the evening hours of September 18, 2020, Americans’ hearts collectively dropped as the news came out: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court justice and feminist icon, had passed away in her home at age 87. At first, the story hit Twitter, then was picked up a few minutes later by every media outlet in the country. Group chats exploded, Instagram feeds suddenly featured headshots and profile images of the late justice, and impromptu vigils popped up across the Union, including on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. In many ways, the passing of RBG signals the end of an era. Her presence on the court was significant for the mere representation of a Jewish woman in such a prestigious role. Her name has become synonymous with the advancement of women’s rights and protections of civil liberties, such as marriage equality and other progressive issues. 

Yet, her death signifies a turning point for the court. The “Notorious RBG” was a progressive voice on the bench and helped solidify the liberal block. Through the precedents she set in her confirmation process and her approach to adjudication, Justice Ginsburg helped define the Supreme Court as a body responsible for the protection and advancement of our civil rights. With her seat open, and President Trump and Majority Leader McConnel’s promise to nominate a replacement before November, liberals are scared, viscerally scared that her replacement will not maintain the Ginsburg-established legacies and that fragile civil liberties will once again be up for debate. However, Justice Ginsburg deserves more than reflections on the significance of her death; now is the time to celebrate her life and accomplishments. Ginsburg’s lifelong dedication to civil liberties characterized an era of expansive civil rights protection and made her an enduring feminsit icon.

Childhood and Education

Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1933 to a Jewish-Russian immigrant and a first-generation Jewish-American. She graduated from Cornell University in 1954, with a major in government. After college, Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School as one of only nine women in her class. Infamously depicted in the biographical film made about Ginsburg’s life, the dean of the law school asked the women how they rationalized taking the place of a man in their law school class. This, and her husband getting a job offer in New York, prompted Ginsburg to transfer to Columbia Law School. She graduated in 1959, and recounts this as the time in her life when she first got involved in women’s rights issues. At this point, Ginsburg had been demoted from a job for being pregnant and had experienced explicit sexism at law school, because she was a mother, a wife, and Jewish. Ginsburg’s intersectional identities played a big role in her early career out of law school. 

Ginsburg the Clerk 

After graduating from law school, Ginsburg tried to get a job clerking for a judge, a typical first-year post for recent law school grads. Despite multiple recommendations from professors at Harvard and Columbia, many judges did not even consider Ginsburg for the job, due to her gender. Ginsburg recognized the impact of intersectionality, saying, in an interview, “a Jew, a woman, and a mother, that was a bit much. Three strikes put me out of the game.” Multiple judges rejected her before Judge Edmund L. Palmieri took her on as a law clerk. 

Professor Ginsberg 

After clerking, Ginsburg returned to the world of academia. In 1961, Ginsburg accepted a position at Columbia Law School to help a professor with a project on International Civil Procedure. However, Columbia did not offer Ginsburg a faculty position, so instead she taught civil procedure at Rutgers Law School, for the better part of the following decade. In 1970, Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first legal publication in the US exclusively focused on the field of women’s rights law. At Rutgers, Ginsburg discovered her salary was lower than that of her male counterparts, and she joined the equal pay campaign organized by other female professors at the school. Eventually, Ginsberg returned to Columbia as the law school’s first woman to be a tenured professor. 

Ginsburg at the American Civil Liberties Union

In the early 70s, Ginsburg started representing complaints referred to her by the New Jersey affiliate of the ACLU. Ginsburg helped establish the Women’s Project at the ACLU in 1972, with the hope of instituting legal precedents that would remove obstacles for women in the workplace. Because of her approach and her work with the ACLU, Ginsburg is often compared to Thurgood Marshall, who pioneered the strategies used by the NAACP to ensure civil liberties for Black Americans. Ginsburg’s own strategy was to convince Justices of the Supreme Court that the laws discriminated against both men and women, by restricting people to stereotypical gender roles. In doing so, Ginsburg was able to prove, in an array of cases, that the laws were harmful to both men and women and were often unconstitutional. Ginsburg used men as plaintiffs to prove her point that the harmful stereotypes inherent in the law affected men, as well as women. Marcia Greenberger, the co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, was quoted saying: “Ruth Ginsburg was as responsible as any one person for legal advances that women made under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution,” revealing the impact Ginsburg had on the preservation of women’s rights, long before she was a Supreme Court Justice.  

The US Court of Appeals 

In 1978, Congress passed the Omnibus Judgeship Act. The law expanded the number of federal judges in district and circuit courts and emphasized nominating judges that represented minority communities, such as women or African-Americans. In 1980, Ginsburg was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to the DC circuit appeals court, where she would serve until her Supreme Court nomination. On the circuit court, Ginsburg developed a reputation as a “cautious jurist,” meaning that she respected the power of the court system and the federal government’s system of checks and balances. Ginsburg did not believe the courts were the place for radical social change, which positioned her as a moderate and helped create unity on the court. 

The Supreme Court 

Ginsburg was nominated for the vacant Supreme Court seat in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. During her nomination and confirmation process, Ginsburg refused to answer questions about how she would rule on certain issues, establishing what some consider the “Ginsburg precedent.” During her confirmation, Ginsburg presented as a considerate moderate who would help bring consensus to the court. Throughout her 27 year tenure on the Court, Ginsburg evolved into a representative of the liberal voice. Her approach included interpretations and considerations of the “living constitution,” and her rulings reveal a dedication to furthering civil rights, specifically women’s rights. 

In 1996, Justice Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion for United States v. Virginia. The ruling forced the last all-male school in the country, the Virginia Military Institute, to become co-ed. In the suit, the United States claimed the restrictive admissions policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment. In her opinion, Ginsburg confirmed that gender equality is a constitutional right, paving the way for many more opinions concerning the welfare and equality of women. 

In 2007, Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion for Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. The plaintiff, Ledbetter, sued her employer for many years of gender descrimination in the form of unequal pay to her male counterparts. She claimed the pay disparity violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unfortunately, the clause required complaints to be filed within 180 days of the “violation,” thus rendering Ledbetter’s complaint void. In her opinion, Ginsburg argued that “the Court’s insistence on immediate contest overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination.” Furthermore, Ginsburg rewrote the dissenting opinion so that it could be more widely understood, and she read the opinion from the bench instead of just filing it.  

In the 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case, Ginsburg dissented again. In this case, Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts supply store that employs 28,000 people, brought a case arguing that the corporation should not have to violate their religious beliefs by supplying health insurance plans that include birth control for employees. The outcome of this case allowed corporations to limit access to healthcare for the first time. In her opinion, Ginsburg warned about the “denial of other kinds of health care as well as employees’ other rights, based on their bosses’ beliefs.”

In 2016, Ginsburg wrote a concurring opinion on a case concering Texas’s Omnibus Abortion Bill (HB 2), known as Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. HB 2 imposed strict restrictions on providers and patients seeking abortions in Texas. The court struck down the bill, saying laws that restrict access to healthcare cannot “survive judicial inspection.” In her concurring opinion, Ginsburg argued, “when a State severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners…at great risk to their health and safety.” This strong stance sent a message to states that restrictions on healthcare providers would not be tolerated. 

Justice Ginsburg ruled on many other major cases, including cases involving immigation laws (Sessions v. Dimaya, 2018), voting rights (Shelby County v. Holder, 2013), and gay rigths (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015). Ginsburg served as the most senior member of the court’s “liberal wing” and helped consolidate the liberal block on the court. Ginsburg understood the constitution as an evolving document with an ever changing meaning, and therefore interpretation. She used the words written by our founding fathers to justify the expansion of women’s rights, and her contributions to American women will not be forgotten. 

The Ginsburg Era: A Personal Reflection

For my entire life, Ruth Bader Ginsburg sat on the highest court and defended my right to education, equal pay, healthcare, marriage, and much more. Her tenure is characterized by her dedication to furthering Americans’ civil rights while maintaining a cautious approach to adjudication. Ginsburg helped pave the way for many women, not just in the legal field, but in any environment where women compete with men. 

As the Ginsburg Era comes to a close, there is a dramatic and frightening shift of power on the Court. The once moderatre turned liberal feminist justice is slated to be replaced by someone who seems likely to overturn Roe v. Wade, the original case that established women’s reproductive rights. Ginsburg represented me, and people like me, on the court. Her backstory and career made her our advocate. While she may have left big shoes to fill, Amy Coney Barrett’s entanglement of faith and the law is not the way to honor or replace Ginsburg. Instead, a commitment to supporting women and furthering our rights is the best way to commemorate Justice Ginsburg. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an icon and a champion to many. Her position on the court helped symbolically advance women’s rights while her rulings and opinions codified these rights. I thank her for her service to American women and American people, and I hope her legacy is not erased by her replacement.