After Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away in September 2020, aged 87, she became the first woman in American history to lie in state at the US Capitol building in Washington DC. This final act was the last in a long line of firsts for Ginsburg, who spent her life championing women’s rights in the United States and around the world.
Her role on the US Supreme Court as only the second woman, and the first Jewish woman, to serve on the bench meant that she didn’t just advocate for women’s rights, she made them legally right as well. Many will say she made them morally right too, as Ginsburg became a beacon for equal rights and fairness on both a social and a judicial level.
Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 15, 1933. Her father, Nathan, was an emigrant from Odessa, Ukraine, while her mother, Celia, was born in New York to parents from Krakow, Poland. Celia was actively engaged in her daughter’s education, taking her to the library regularly, and ensuring that the young Ruth was able to gain educational opportunities that she herself missed out on. Celia was unable to further her own education beyond high school, as her family chose to send her brother to college instead.
Celia struggled with cancer during Ruth’s years in high school, and passed away the day before her daughter’s high school graduation. The Guardian newspaper’s obituary for Ginsburg highlighted a particularly poignant moment at this time of her life, where “she was not allowed to join a minyan (a group of men) to mourn her mother’s death”.
Ginsburg, like her mother, grew up at a time where women around the world were routinely, and casually, shut out or sidelined because of gender bias. For example, although Ginsburg excelled in education, upon enrolling at Harvard Law School in 1956 (one of only 9 women in a class of almost 500 men), she and her fellow female classmates were reportedly asked by the dean of Harvard Law School: “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?”
After graduating from Colombia Law School in 1959, joint first in her class, Ginsburg faced difficulty at the beginning of her formal legal career, including being refused for a job as a clerk on the basis of her gender. Rising above the bias, she was given the opportunity to clerk for a New York judge, and from there began to build a legal career which stands out as one of the most significant in American history. She co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, and argued a number of cases on gender discrimination issues. She even advocated on issues affecting men, highlighting the inherent wrongs of gender bias, and how inequality can, and does, affect everyone across society.
Ginsburg was nominated by President Bill Clinton to a seat on the Supreme Court in 1993, but it says a lot about the changing role of women in society that Ginsburg herself once saw the idea of a woman on the Supreme Court bench as a ‘dreamer’s’ goal. She explained how when she was in law school, “there were no women judges, so the bench was not something to which women aspired unless you were a dreamer”.
According to a report published in February 2020 by the Center for American Progress, “female judges make up just 27 percent of all lower federal court sitting judges” in America, “and 34 percent of active judges”. Although the US remains far from equity on the judicial benches, the progress just in Ginsburg’s lifetime shows how important this message of equality remains, and will continue to remain in the years to come. In this sense, perhaps the greatest legacy left by Ginsburg isn’t just that women can aspire to more, it’s that they can and should be able to achieve more as well.
In her later years, Ginsburg took on an almost iconic popular persona, lovingly dubbed by supporters as the Notorious RBG for her passionate advocacy on women’s rights. The news of Ginsburg’s passing saw bipartisan tributes for the late Supreme Court justice, with her work on women’s rights roundly applauded.
However, for many, Ginsburg’s passing also marks the start of a new chapter in women’s rights in America. Ginsburg’s proposed replacement on the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, is seen as a more conservative candidate who is likely to have very different views on key women’s rights issues including abortion. Roe V Wade, the US case which ruled that American women have the right to choose to have an abortion, is seen as on trial in the US right now. With Ginsburg’s passing, the fight for women’s rights continues to remain hugely important.
As I write this article, America is heading to the polls to elect the next President of the United States. Four years after Hillary Clinton became the first female nominee of a major party for US president, Senator Kamala Harris is seeking to become the first female Vice President. Whatever the results of the election, and whatever happens on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg’s legacy has one important lesson we can all learn.
This lesson can be outlined using Ginsburg’s own words: “Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Now is the time for all of us, men and women, to join together to fight for a more equal society.