Who was Ruth Bader Ginsburg and why is she important?

During the past few weeks you may have seen conversations surrounding Ruth Bader Ginsburg (or RBG) appearing in your various feeds. If you are not already familiar with who she is and what she has accomplished throughout her impressive life and career, then prepare to be inspired!


Ruth Bader Ginsburg Smiling Photo by Wake Forest University School of Law distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license


RBG is best known for being a lawyer and advocate for women’s rights and gender equality - and later for being the second woman, and first Jewish woman, to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. While expiriencing gender discrimination herself, RBG dedicated her time and efforts to represent those discriminated against on the basis of their sex - whether female or male.


From 1956 to 1958 Ginsburg attended Harvard Law School (HLS) where she excelled in her studies while simultaneously caring for her husband, Martin - also a Harvard law student who had been diagnosed with testicular cancer - and raising their infant daughter. During that time, and for the rest of her life, RBG was known for getting minimal sleep and working through the night and into the early hours of the morning, just to get it all done. After Martin graduated from HLS and began working in New York, Ginsburg finished her studies at Columbia Law School where she tied for first in her class. Including herself, there were only twelve women in Ginsburg’s graduating class of ‘59. The small Ginsburg family was far from conventional for the mid to late 20th century - not only was she a law student, Ruth was not your typical “domestic” wife and mother. Until the day he died, her dear husband Martin respected, encouraged, and promoted Ruth’s drive to break away from gender norms and combat gender-based discrimination.


While Ginsburg was a Professor of Law for nearly two decades, first at Rutgers Law School and then at Columbia Law School, “she combined academic commitments with high-profile impact litigation at the Supreme Court”. Six of the some 300 cases of gender discrimination argued by Ginsburg and her team went before the Supreme Court. Ginsburg wrote the plaintiff’s brief for the case of Reed vs. Reed (1971). The Court’s decision, which favored the plaintiff, became the first application of the Equal Protection Clause by the Supreme Court to a gender-discriminating law. Of course, Ginsburg did not stop there. Please take a closer look at her accomplishments during this time here.


In 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter nominated Ginsburg to sit on the DC circuit appeals court. Soon after, she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and stayed thirteen years on that bench as a moderate judge. In 1993, Judge Ginsburg became Justice Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court. 


Ruth Bader Ginsburg 2016 portrait Photo by Supreme Court of the United States distributed under a public domain license


As a Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg wrote numerous court opinions, as well as many dissenting opinions. For those who are not familiar with the term, a dissenting opinion means “to officially disagree with the judgment made by the other judges working with you on a legal case”. Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion of the Court’s 2013 ruling of Shelby County v. Holder led to her well known nickname: “Notorious RBG”. The Court’s majority opinion ruled section 4(b) of The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) as unconstitutional. In dissent RBG wrote:


"[T]he Court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) has worked to combat voting discrimination where other remedies had been tried and failed. Particularly effective is the VRA’s requirement of federal preclearance for all changes to voting laws in the regions of the country with the most aggravated records of rank discrimination against minority voting rights.” (12-96 Shelby County v. Holder (06/25/2013)


Political Sign with ruth bader ginsburg Photo by Susan Melkisethian distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

RGB also took a strong stance on women’s access to contraceptives through their employer’s insurance. In early July 2020, the Court ruled (7-2) that employers can restrict women’s access to contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. In dissent, RBG wrote: 


"In accommodating claims of religious freedom, this court has taken a balanced approach, one that does not allow the religious beliefs of some to overwhelm the rights and interests of others who do not share those beliefs . . . Today, for the first time, the court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree.” (Taken from NYTimes.com)


Throughout her entire life and career Ruth Bader Ginsburg broke through the barriers set before her, always vocalizing her opposition to discrimination and trying her very best to deliver and uphold justice for those most at risk of injustice. RBG charged through life while suffering her own hardships. She not only lost her husband to cancer in 2010, she lived through five bouts of it beginning in 1999. She is a great example of perseverance and dedication in the face of all odds. She is not perceived as an icon only in the United States, but also throughout the world, giving inspiration to many. Justice Ginsburg fought for justice itself until her death on September 18, 2020. Even so, her words and impact on others will continue to live on.  

Ruth Bader Ginsburg memorial Photo by Ted Eytan distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license