An Inspiration and An Icon: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Shaped America For the Better

On Friday, September 18th, a true icon passed away. In Jewish tradition, only special souls pass on Shabbat, and the most righteous on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is only fitting that Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed on a day that coincided with both.

A genuinely special soul and righteous individual, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also known as RBG, paved the way for so many women. A trailblazing feminist, and the second woman ever to be on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg changed the history of the United States for the better. 

U.S. Capitol building in Washington DC Photo by Louis Velazquez Unsplash Born in 1933, Ginsburg’s life was anything but typical for the time period during which she grew up. Ginsburg graduated top of her class from Cornell University in 1954, marrying her husband Martin that same year. Both aspiring lawyers, when Martin fell ill of cancer, RBG attended his Harvard law classes, taking notes for the both of them, typing out his papers, all while caring for their young daughter and making the Harvard Law Review. In true RBG fashion, her marriage was one of equality. In numerous interviews, she recalled how her husband was the first boy she met who cared that she had a brain. 

And what a brain she had. Ruth was consistently at the top of her class at Harvard, being one of only nine women in a class with roughly 500 men. Despite her brilliance, the Harvard Dean saw the women as an annoyance to the school. In his mind, they were taking nine spots that could have been occupied by men. So when Martin was offered work in New York, and his family decided to move there with him, it came as no surprise that the Dean refused to let Ruth complete her Harvard coursework from New York. This gender discrimination, that Ruth would encounter again and again, did not stop her from pursuing her law degree. She transferred to Columbia Law School where she graduated first in her class. 

Library at University of Michigan Law School Photo by Mathew Schwartz from Unsplash By 1959, RBG had been top in her class at both Harvard Law and Columbia Law, yet, due to her gender, she was still unable to find a job at a law firm after graduation. While more intelligent and outspoken than many of her male colleagues, her gender was seen as a limitation in the field of law. Being the strong, persistent woman that the world came to love, Ginsburg landed a job clerking for the U.S. District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri, where she worked from 1959 to 1961. She soon moved on to bigger and brighter things, which eventually led her to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ginsburg taught at Rutgers University Law School from 1963 to 1972 and at Columbia from 1972 to 1980, where she became the school’s first woman to become a tenured professor. During the 1970s, she also served as the director of the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Through this position, she was able to argue six landmark cases on gender equality before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1980, she was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia by President, Jimmy Carter. She served on the Court for thirteen years until 1993, when President Bill Clinton appointed her to the United States Supreme Court.

black and white photo of Lady Justice holding the scales of justice Photo by Ezequiel Octaviano from Pixabay Almost 30 years of Ginsburg’s life were spent on the Supreme Court. She leaves behind a legacy of life changing court cases and rulings that span well beyond the courtroom. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career began by fighting for women’s rights, but her approach to law soon took a broad look at gender discrimination, and discrimination in general. She fought not only for the women left behind, but for anyone who was or had been discriminated against.

sign saying fight today for a better tomorrow Markus Spiske / Pexels Some of Ginsburg’s most notable cases include Reed v. Reed, United States v. Virginia and Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. The 1971 case of Reed v. Reed, Ginsburg’s first as a justice, was the first major Supreme Court case that addressed that discrimination based on gender was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. The case focused on equal protection and prohibited differential treatment based on sex, a subject RBG would become famous for.

In 1996, Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia. She held that qualified women could not be denied admission to Virginia Military Institute, a university with a long-standing male-only admission policy. Her arguments attacked specific areas of discrimination and violations of women’s rights, strategically justifying rational for social change. Ginsburg was not one to be shy when she saw a law or situation as wrong. 

She dissented in the 2007 case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, where the plaintiff, Lilly Ledbetter, was a woman being paid significantly less than the men she worked with of her same qualifications. Ledbetter sued under Title VII but was denied relief under a statute of limitations issue. In a rather non-traditional manner, Ginsburg delivered a scathing dissent from the bench, a rare act intended to demonstrate the strength of a justice’s disagreement. During her dissent speech, she called for Congress to undo their interpretation of the law, allowing women to receive the same affordances as men. Two years later, under President Obama, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed into legislation.

Vlad Tchompalov Vlad Tchompalov / Unsplash Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a woman who always let her opinions be known. A peak into her oral arguments record will show her as a force to be reckoned with, a woman who never gave up. She allowed women the right to sign a mortgage without a man, the right to have a bank account without a male co-signer, the right to have a job without being discriminated against based on gender and the right for women to be pregnant and have kids at work.

Her strength was exemplified through so many of her actions, but maybe the most impressive being her ability to always be there for the United States, even when it pained her to be. Until 2018, Ginsburg never missed a day of oral arguments, not even when she was undergoing chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer, after surgery for colon cancer, or the day after her husband passed away in 2010. In her worst moments, the moments where she should have been able to grieve and to cry, she remained composed, knowing America needed her more than she needed herself in those moments.

It is in these moments now that we grieve for Ruth, that we cry for her, that we must remain composed for her knowing America needs us. It is her time to rest and our time to fight.

So, while we grieve, we must campaign, we must vote, encourage friends to vote, get family to vote and change the mindset of those who want to re-elect our current President. We must keep fighting. We must keep her legacy alive. We need to ensure her hard work was not for nothing. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg set the precedent. It is our turn to follow.