Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a legal, cultural, and feminist icon, passed away on the 18th of September 2020. The US Supreme Court announced her death due to complications in her metastatic cancer of the pancreas. Described by her colleague as, “tough as nails”, she has left behind an extraordinary legacy.
Having served in the ’70s as director of the Women’s Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union and arguing six substantial gender equality cases, to being appointed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to being the second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, Ginsburg had served in America’s highest court for 27 years, becoming its most distinguished member.
Her death has, and will continue to, unfortunately instituted a nasty, gruesome, and tumultuous political battle over who will succeed her, and this also brings into spotlight the presidential campaign for the November elections. However, we must not lose sight of her legacy in the murky waters of politics. RBG was known as a “tireless and resolute champion of justice”. That is what is deserving of promotion especially when her legacy is being exploited disrespectfully on so many levels for a presidential bargain.
The early life – Ruth Joan Bader was born into a low-income family, in a working class neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. Her mother, Cecelia, was a major influence in her life and instilled in her the value of a good education and of independence. Her mother worked in a garment factory to help pay her brother’s college tuition. Cecelia unfortunately struggled with cancer throughout Ruth’s high school years and passed away the day before her graduation. Ginsburg’s mother and her ideologies had etched themselves into her personal mindset. “My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent” – RBG. Their relationship truly showcases the powerfulness of raising your children with strong values. A strong selfless woman imprints on those around her.
The path to law – at 17, Ruth Bader went onto Cornell University on full scholarship. There, she finished first in her class and she married Martin Ginsburg, a law student in the same year. “What made Marty so overwhelmingly attractive to me was that he cared that I had a brain”. After graduating, the pair were married and off to Oklahoma for his military service. RBG, despite her high score on the civil service exam, was only offered a typist job and lost even that when she became pregnant: the sheer misogyny she encounters starts to become more evident from here on out.
Two years later, the couple relocated to the East Coast to attend Harvard Law School. Here she was met with a hostile, male dominated environment, her being one of the nine women in her class of 500. Ginsberg raised a question to the dean as to why she was supposedly taking up a place that “should go to a man’. However, at Harvard, she was the academic star, not her husband, not another man, not any of the remaining eight women. She was juggling being a mother alongside being a law student, but she pressed on and excelled academically, becoming the first ever female member of the prestigious legal journal, Harvard Law Review.
Her husband Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer and surgeries and radiations followed. “So that left her with a three-year-old, a fairly-sick husband, the law review, classes to attend and feeding me,” Marty Ginsburg said in a 1993 interview. During the year of her husband’s illness, he could only eat at night, he would go back to sleep at 2 a.m., “then I’d take out my books and start reading what I needed to be prepared for classes the next day”. Martin recovered, graduated and got a job in New York, Ruth was a year behind but transferred to Columbia and graduated at the top of her class in law school.
Despite her brilliance in academics, the path to law was still closed off to women. She was recommended to the Supreme Court but wasn’t even interviewed, the male judges “worried” she would be diverted by “family obligations” as she was not just a woman but also a mother.
A mentor, Gerald Gunther, finally got her a clerkship in New York where she managed to stick around not just for the usual one but two years, surprising everyone with her excellence. She didn’t stop there: she was tireless, she learnt Swedish to work with a civil procedure scholar and co-authored a book with him. She landed a teaching job at Rugters where she had to hide her pregnancy by wearing her mother-in-law’s clothes. It was here that she began fighting against gender discrimination.
An architect for women’s rights in the ’70s, she went on to defy stereotypes in the Supreme Court. Despite not being Bill Clinton’s first choice, when they met, he supposedly “fell for her, hook, line and sinker”. She argued majestically, in her 70s, despite her illness and despite so many political and patriarchal oppressions. Her marriage was supportive and the two learnt and grew together. Marty provided a reason for their successful union, “My wife doesn’t give me any advice about cooking and I don’t give her any about the law”.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a woman who almost singlehandedly worked a revolution, who observed and faced, first-hand, gender inequality and set into motion a fight that is to be fought by generations to come. Her rest is well deserved, her life is inspiring to the say the least. Now it is time to understand and honour her legacy and not let it be lost.
Image Credit: Ted Eytan via Flickr