Supreme Court Justice
Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
Pioneer for Gender Equality
The Second Woman
and First Jewish Woman
to Sit on the US Supreme Court
After her appointment to the US Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke to the American Jewish Committee about her life, including the impact of her Jewish identity and Jewish heritage on her work. She said: “I am a judge born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition. I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and the courage to remain constant in the service of that demand.”*
Judging from the numerous awards that she has received for her work, I think it is fair to say that she lived up to, and continues to live up to the Biblical command of “Justice, Justice, shall you pursue.” She is most known for her work for gender equality. When President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court, he said: “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.”
Justice Ginsburg as a Role Model and Celebrity
Here is a great video of Justice Ginsburg telling her story about the challenges she faced as a woman attending Harvard Law School, where she was one of only nine women in a class of 500 students. She attributed her success at Harvard, in part, to her daughter, who provided her with a welcome “respite” from her studies. Justice Ginsburg was first in her class at both Harvard and at Columbia Law Schools. She graduated from Columbia in 1959.
She later became a law professor, and in 1972 founded the Women’s Rights Project to take on cases of gender discrimination, for the expressed purpose of “…going after the stereotypes that were written into law.” She speaks candidly in this video about her joy and anxiety as she prepared to argue one of these cases for the first time before the US Supreme Court.
This beautiful piece was recorded by “MAKERS, ” a storytelling platform, founded in 2012, for and about trailblazing women of today and tomorrow. MAKERS.com features more than 4,500 original videos and more than 400 MAKERS interviews. CLICK HERE, or on the photo to the left, to see and listen to this interview with Justice Ginsburg.
Justice Ginsburg’s frank, outspoken style and her tremendous influence on many noted court cases, has led to her popularity among men and women alike. She has become a celebrity and given the nicknames: “The Notorious RBG,” and “The Great RBG.” You can find many interesting interviews with the Justice on YouTube. Here is one that I think captures her spirit and personality.
This is a short PBS video highlights Justice Ginsburg telling her own story about how she became “Notorious.” The interviewer is the late, great, American Peabody Award-winning journalist, television newscaster, and author, Gwen Ifill. In this interview, Justice Ginsburg says that she would never have been nominated to the Supreme Court without the help her beloved husband, Marty. Marty told her that if she wanted to get the nomination, she had to promote herself. She wanted the position, but told him that she could not advocate
for herself. Marty, however, did know how. He took up the banner and and worked “tirelessly” to promote the woman he loved and knew would make a great Justice.
CLICK HERE to watch this 2016 recording.
Given her high profile, it’s not surprising that Justice Ginsburg has become an inspiring role model, particularly for girls and women. One 8-year-old girl chose Justice Ginsburg as her Superhero, and dressed up like her on her school’s “Superhero Day.” Read more about this CBS story that went viral.
Justice Ginsburg’s Early Years
Justice Ginsburg was born in 1933, in Brooklyn, New York, to Nathan Bader, a Russian immigrant who made his living as a furrier, and an American born mother, Celia, who worked in a garment factory. While her parents didn’t have much money during the Great Depression years, they valued education. Ginsburg’s mother, Celia, instilled a love of learning in Ruth, often taking her to libraries. Ruth always excelled as a student.
Yet Justice Ginsburg’s childhood was not easy. Her older sister, Martha, died of meningitis when she was only six years old, and young Ruth was only 14 months old. Justice Ginsburg’s beloved mother died from cancer the day before her high school graduation.
Managing Life Through Good Times and Bad
Throughout her life, Justice Ginsburg has been focused and diligent, and possessed an emotional and physical strength to continue her work, even through difficult times. She took care of her husband through his battle with cancer, and has fought two bouts of cancer herself, plus heart disease. Yet she has persisted, and plans to continue working on the Supreme Court “…as long as I can go full steam.”
Facing Discrimination in School and in her Career
Justice Ginsburg graduated first in her class from Columbia Law School in 1959. Her extraordinary achievement was not enough, however, to help her get a job. It was not until one of her favorite Columbia professors explicitly refused to recommend any other graduate before U.S. District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri, that she landed her first position. Palmieri hired her and enjoyed working with her. The feeling was mutual, and the two became life-long friends. When Justice Ginsburg was ready to move on, she still had trouble getting the next job. Firms would offer her positions, but for a much lower salary than they offered men for the same position. Instead of taking one of these positions…
She instead took some time to pursue her other legal passion, civil procedure, choosing to join the Columbia Project on International Civil Procedure. This project fully immersed her in Swedish culture, where she lived abroad to do research for her book on Swedish Civil Procedure practices. Upon her return to the States, she accepted a job as a professor at Rutgers University Law School in 1963, a position she held until accepting an offer to teach at Columbia in 1972. There, she became the first female professor at Columbia to earn tenure. Ginsburg also directed the influential Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union during the 1970s. In this position, she led the fight against gender discrimination and successfully argued six landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Ginsburg took a broad look at gender discrimination, fighting not just for the women left behind, but for the men who were discriminated against as well. Ginsburg experienced her share of gender discrimination, even going so far as to hide her pregnancy from her Rutgers colleagues. https://www.oyez.org/justices/ruth_bader_ginsburg
Read more about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her book: My Own Words, Copyright 2016. Here is the publisher’s description.
The first book from Ruth Bader Ginsburg since becoming a Supreme Court Justice in 1993—a witty, engaging, serious, and playful collection of writings and speeches from the woman who has had a powerful and enduring influence on law, women’s rights, and popular culture.
My Own Words offers Justice Ginsburg on wide-ranging topics, including gender equality, the workways of the Supreme Court, being Jewish, law and lawyers in opera, and the value of looking beyond US shores when interpreting the US Constitution. Throughout her life Justice Ginsburg has been (and continues to be) a prolific writer and public speaker. This book’s sampling is selected by Justice Ginsburg and her authorized biographers Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams. Justice Ginsburg has written an introduction to the book, and Hartnett and Williams introduce each chapter, giving biographical context and quotes gleaned from hundreds of interviews they have conducted. This is a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of America’s most influential women.
Also see The Notorious RGB, by Irin and Shana Knizhnik
“The authors make this unassuming, most studious woman come pulsing to life. . . . Notorious RBG may be a playful project, but it asks to be read seriously. . . . That I responded so personally to it is a testimony to [its] storytelling and panache.”— Jennifer Senior, New York Times
Sources for this Article