Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A pioneering justice and liberal icon

‘She is to the women’s movement what former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was to the movement for the rights of African Americans,’ Bill Clinton said of her in 1993.

John T. Bennett
Washington Bureau Chief
Saturday 19 September 2020 03:33 BST
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is sworn into the US Supreme Court

When then-President Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the Supreme Court, so impressed was he with her career he honored her with the biggest compliment he could think of.

“Many admirers of her work say that she is to the women’s movement what former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was to the movement for the rights of African Americans,” Mr Clinton said during a Rose Garden ceremony in 1993. “I can think of no greater compliment to bestow on an American lawyer.”

Ms Ginsburg, a feminist and women’s rights icon, passed away on Friday from complications linked to pancreatic cancer. She left behind a dying wish, that her Supreme Court seat be left vacant until after November’s presidential election. She also left behind a legacy that was immediately hailed by Republican and Democratic officials. The late justice was 87.

She battled serious health issues for years, but typically worked from her hospital bed or soon returned to her work on the high court. Her intellect and work ethic earned the respect of her colleagues on both sides of the dais. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg has had two distinguished legal careers, either one of which would alone entitle her to be one of Time’s 100,” wrote late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in 2015 when she was named as one of the magazine’s 100 most influential people.

Mr Scalia was certainly not the lone Republican honoring Ginsburg in the hours following her death. Sometimes it is more telling what one’s opponents say about someone than their allies.

“Justice Ginsburg overcame one personal challenge and professional barrier after another,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in a statement. “She climbed from a modest Brooklyn upbringing to a seat on our nation’s highest court and into the pages of American history.”

He added: “Justice Ginsburg was thoroughly dedicated to the legal profession and to her 27 years of service on the Supreme Court. Her intelligence and determination earned her respect and admiration throughout the legal world, and indeed throughout the entire nation, which now grieves alongside her family, friends, and colleagues.”

Those challenges began when she was young and intent on starting a legal career.

“We felt that all eyes were on us,” she said in recent years during an appearance at Georgetown Law School, referring to several female students who joined her at Harvard Law School with 500 male students. While at Harvard, a top school official asked the female students during a dinner: “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?”

She would transfer to Columbia Law School, where she graduated tied for first in her class.

The legal career she envisioned, however, did not take off immediately. Law firms “were willing to take a chance on a woman”, she said during that Georgetown University event. “They were not yet willing to take a chance on a mother.” At the time, Ms Ginsburg had a four-year-old daughter (she would also have a son 10 years later). 

She used experiences like those to become an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and equality.

Struggles were not new to her. She grew up the daughter of Nathan Bader, who immigrated to New York with his family as a teenager. Her mother was born in the United States, but just four months after her own family had immigrated to the country. Ms Ginsburg’s family was not wealth like many Harvard and Columbia students. They ran small shops and lived mostly paycheck-to-paycheck.

The Bader family lives in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, and she carried the borough’s familiar accent until she died. But her time included some hardship, including the death of a six-year-old sister from meningitis when she was 14 months old.

Her mother, Celia Bader, died of cancer the day before her daughter’s high school graduation. Ms Ginsburg told C-SPAN in 2009 that her mother wanted her to “study and work hard and get good grades. So that’s what I did.” Celia Bader had been an impressive student, but her parents did not send her to college. Instead, she went to work to help finance her brother’s time at Cornell University.

The future Supreme Court Justice would bring President Clinton to tears years later during that same Rose Garden ceremony when she paid tribute to her late mother. “I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons,” she said.

Unlike her mother, Ms Ginsburg attended Cornell University, where she met her husband, Martin Ginsburg. She was 17 when they met as college sophomores. They married after graduation. The film On the Basis of Sex details the early years of their marriage, during which Mr Ginsburg is disappointed when she takes a law professor job at Rutgers University, not quite the kind of position she felt qualified for nor wanted. It was Ms Ginsburg who comforted her husband, according to the film.

She once said of her husband, with whom she had two children: “He was the only boy I ever met who cared that I had a brain.” In a light moment, she told C-SPAN in 2009 that her husband was the “master chef” in their house because her children “chased me out of the kitchen” when they were young. She described regular lunches at the high court prepared by the justices’ spouses in the same interview, saying: “I might be biased, but I think his is the best.”

Mr Ginsburg was a talented and successful tax lawyer, but gave up his lucrative career to move with his wife to Washington in 1980 when then-President Jimmy Carter nominated her for a seat on a federal court. Her husband would teach tax law at Georgetown University and worked behind the scenes for years to convince Democrats to get her on shortlists for the next president of that party who had a chance to fill a high court vacancy.

The couple were married for decades and rode out sickness and career struggles together. One came in 1960 when Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter rejected Ms Ginsburg’s application for a clerkship because she was a woman. Another came when she was hired by Rutgers and told she would be paid less than male professors because her husband had a good job that paid handsomely. Again, it was those kinds of personal experiences that shaped her worldview and decisions until the final ones she wrote for the high court.

Those experiences were a major reason why she founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in 1972, becoming the group’s general counsel the next year. Incredibly, the project had been a part of over 300 equal rights cases by 1974. Years later, in 2017, she called it a “huge sign of progress” that school children who visit her weekly in her court office ask most often if she always wanted to be a Supreme Court justice. 

Ms Ginsburg’s high court colleagues regaled her as a congenial colleague who gave as good as she got. “When a justice is of the firm view that the majority got it wrong, she is free to say so in dissent,” she wrote in a 2016 New York Times op-ed. “I take advantage of that prerogative, when I think it is important, as do my colleagues.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, US Supreme Court Justice, born 15 March 1933, died 18 September 2020

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