Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died at the age of 87, was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. Appointed to the court by Bill Clinton in 1993, she had already built a reputation as a champion of gender equality and women’s rights as a lawyer, scholar and appellate court judge. Throughout her long career, she has been firm in her two beliefs: there is discrimination against women in the United States (and elsewhere), and this discrimination violates the United States Constitution.
In her 27 years on the Supreme Court, she was a consistent moderate liberal. His role as a liberal justice of the peace, after 2010, became increasingly important as the balance of opinion shifted in the court, and his scathing dissent over the decisions of the Conservative majority, particularly over rights. women, made her a famous figure on the left.
In recent years, Ginsburg has been treated, as one New York writer put it, as “a feminist icon of pop culture, a comic book superhero.” She was formidably intelligent and had in her youth an almost superhuman capacity for work. But what made her historically so important was her clear belief in the unfairness of unequal treatment of women and her absolute certainty that it could be cleansed by applying the Constitution.
His accent changed over the course of his long career. At first, as a law professor in Rutgers, New Jersey, then in Columbia, New York, and particularly in her advocacy work for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s, she seemed a committed feminist. As director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, she argued six gender discrimination cases in the Supreme Court, winning five victories, persuading the judiciary that gender discrimination was a violation of the constitution’s equal protection clause. She has sometimes argued – as she did in Weinberger v Wiesenfeld (1975), depicting a widower deprived of benefits after his wife died in childbirth – that women, just like men, could be the unfair winners of an unfair system.
For the next 13 years of her career, starting in 1980, she served as a judge in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the second most powerful federal court in the country. As she fights and wins notable fights for greater equality for women, she gains a reputation as a prudent or moderate judge. In fact, she was a close friend of openly conservative judges like Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork.
In her third phase, as a member of the Supreme Court, she was a firm voice for women’s rights in a world where she was ultimately one of three women on the bench. She wrote the majority opinions in many important cases, including the 1996 ruling that the state-funded Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions policy was unconstitutional.
She believed that the most important Supreme Court case in her time was the landmark 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all states.
Ginsburg was a committed feminist, but she was also a cautious reformer. In 1993, she stunned the legal world with a speech in which she expressed reservations about Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established the constitutional right to abortion. But his criticism was that the decision was based on the right to privacy rather than equal protection. During her confirmation hearing in the Senate that followed, she strongly supported abortion rights: “It is essential for the equality of women with men that she is the decision maker, that her choice is to control. . If you put restrictions on her, you put her at a disadvantage because of her gender … the state ban on abortion controls women and denies them full autonomy and full equality with men ”.
As she grew older, she gained a reputation in Washington for hard-mindedness, even as a “character,” but she remained a brilliant lawyer. Ginsburg was also physically tough – the other judges were often shocked to hear what she could achieve in their private gym in court.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, she was the youngest daughter of Jewish parents, Celia (née Amster) and Nathan Bader, a furrier, and grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood. Her original name was Joan, but her mother preferred her middle name, Ruth, as there were so many Joans at her high school, James Madison. Ruth was raised in a conservative Jewish tradition and learned Hebrew as a child, but gave up her religion because she was not allowed to join a minyan (a group of men) to mourn death from her mother when she was 13.
Her academic career has been spectacular and all the more remarkable because while she has had great opportunities, she has also encountered prejudices. Perhaps the most extraordinary was the question posed to her by the liberal director of Harvard Law School, Erwin Griswold, who asked her how she could justify “taking the place of a qualified man?” Another well-known “liberal”, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, refused to take Ginsburg as a clerk because she was a woman. In the #MeToo era, Ginsburg revealed that she turned down a bump in chemistry grades as a student at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, in return for sex.
She did her BA there and met Martin Ginsburg, a fellow law student, whom she married a month after graduating in 1954. The marriage was a lasting success. Martin was a wise advisor, a passionate cook and a very successful tax lawyer. At the start of the marriage, while they were both at Harvard Law School, she was diagnosed with cancer; she took notes for him, raised their first child, and held a post in the Harvard Law Review: she frequently worked all night.
She transferred to Columbia Law School when Martin got a job in New York City and was the top of her class. At Columbia, she learned Swedish in just over a year to co-author a comparative study of Swedish and American law. From 1963 to 1972 she was a professor at Rutgers in New Jersey, then from 1972 to 1980 she taught at Columbia, with a one-year fellowship at Stanford.
From 1972, she began a close relationship with the American Civil Liberties Union and co-founded the Women’s Rights Project there. In two years, she had been involved in more than 300 sex-related cases. Her secretary persuaded her to use the word “sex” rather than the word “sex” because she felt it was less confusing for middle-aged judges.
Her husband was instrumental in quietly lobbying for Clinton to appoint her to the Supreme Court. It was by no means a likely choice. Clinton was working with a list of over 40 candidates, all men. Clinton was keen to make the Supreme Court more diverse, so that the Ginsburg Jewish religion, which she had abandoned 46 years earlier, could have counted more than a lifetime of commitment to women’s equality before the law. Yet once her name was in the ring, Clinton was enthusiastic.
Ginsburg’s work is all the more astonishing as twice in her late fifties she was diagnosed with cancer, in 1979 of the colon and 10 years later of the pancreas, with two more cases of cancer in the two last years.
In 2018, a documentary film about her life, RBG, was a surprise box office success and solidified her reputation as a “fiery feminist” and liberal hero; a biopic, Based on Gender, followed. She broke three ribs in a fall in 2018 but was back to work days later. After gallbladder treatment in 2020, she continued to take part in Supreme Court proceedings from a distance from the hospital, and remained vigilant to the end on issues of lasting importance to her: preventive health. women, abortion, the death penalty and, in a presidential election year, the right to vote.
Her husband passed away in 2010. She is survived by her children, Jane and James.
• Joan Ruth Bader Ginsburg, judge, born March 15, 1933; passed away on September 18, 2020