From Humble Beginnings to the Supreme Court: The Life and Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Written by Tea Vasha
A daughter, a student, a wife, a mother and a Supreme Court Justice…
The news about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death made the tour of the world, commemorating her with various articles on her incredible journey form her childhood in Brooklyn to law school and the challenges she faced being a female lawyer, and then her appointment in the Supreme Court. A “revolutionary” for her time, a fighter for gender equality, and the voice of reason in many contradictious cases. Who was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, what were some of the key moments of her career and what is her legacy?
Becoming a Supreme Court Justice
Born in 1933 in a low-income, working class family in Brooklyn, New York, Ruth found inspiration in the selflessness and sacrifices of her mother, Cecilia Bader, who in order to support her brother’s education, gave up hers and worked in a factory instead. When asked what motivated her to fight for everyone’s ability and freedom to pursue their talent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg singled out the idea of seeking independence. Unfortunately, her mother passed away the day before her high school graduation and was unable to witness her daughter’s many achievements.
During her studies at Cornell University, where she graduated first in her class, Ruth Bader met Martin Ginsburg, who she married in 1954. Life as a couple did not start easy as Matin was drafted into the military while Ruth was pregnant with their daughter. After his return, Ruth and Martin both attended Harvard Law School. This period also had its challenges as Martin, who was fighting cancer, was unable to attend his classes. Under these conditions, Ruth, a mother and student herself, also attended Martin’s classes and took notes for him. Moreover, she became the first female to become a member of the Harvard Law Review. However, she had to transfer to Columbia Law School in New York after her husband landed a position as a lawyer in a firm there.
Despite being a top student, as a woman, she received harsh judgements when seeking employment in her field. Nevertheless, she climbed in her career step by step, helping set the path for other women. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the first female tenured professor at Columbia University, the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Finally, and was appointed a Supreme Court Justice by President Bill Clinton in 1993, being only the second female to hold this position.
Two Landmark Cases on Gender Equality
Weinberher v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an advocate for equality between everyone, and this can be seen in her position in the Weinberher v. Wiesenfeld case. When the wife, who was the primary income earner in the family, passed away during childbirth, her husband applied for Social Security benefit. However, he found that only widows and not widowers were eligible to apply for this benefit. Ruth Ginsburg went to court on his behalf, and argued that the law contributed to the creation of stereotypes on the role of mother and father, therefore making it unconstitutional. She further argued that this only kept “women not on a pedestal, but on a cage”. The relevance of this case is still important today, as preconceived notions of women as caregivers and men as bread earners, are still very persistent.
United States vs. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996)
The Virginia Military Institute had a policy of only accepting men, which was a way of discrimination based on sex. When the case was brought before the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg pointed out the unconstitutionality of this rule. At the end, she was able to convince all other justices except one — Justice Scalia — to take her position. She argued that “state actors my not close entrance gates based on fixed notions concerning the roles and abilities of males and females.” This landmark decision provided a powerful message that helped raise awareness and undermine these fixed stereotypical views on men and women.
Coming from humble beginnings, being determined to receive an education and become a lawyer, and gradually advancing in her career, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an inspiring example for women around the world. Advocating for equal citizenship, she contributed to advancement on women’s rights in terms of education, career options and everyday life. Despite the direct and immediate impacts that her most significant court decisions had in the American society, her life and career serve as an inspiration for women around the world to continue fighting for their rights to receive an education, be represented in government, and act as decision-makers in their own lives.