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The life of trailblazing women's advocate Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The life of trailblazing women's advocate Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a social justice icon and giant of American politics has passed away at the age of eighty-seven. The second woman to be appointed to America’s highest bench, few people in history have had such a substantial impact on shaping the political and legal world as the late Justice Ginsburg.

Born in Brooklyn, in 1933, the young Ruth Bader was the daughter of Jewish immigrants struggling to get by during the Great Depression but rose to be amongst the most important women in American history. After growing up in New York, she attended Cornell University for her undergraduate degree, where she met her future husband Martin Ginsburg – they were married for almost sixty years before his passing in 2010.

In 1956, she was one of just nine women (from a class of 500) accepted into Harvard Law School, where her professor famously told to the female students: ‘how can you justify taking the place of a man?’ Her career serves as the perfect proof of how she more than flew in the face of this misogyny and legalised and systemic discrimination, bringing the entire legal system with her.

Whilst at Harvard, she wrote for the Harvard Law Review, before transferring to Columbia (another prestigious law school) to complete her final year, after her husband took up a job in New York City; she went on to write for the Columbia Law Review too, becoming the first woman to write for both publications. Her transfer to Columbia was principally motivated by the childcare duties that she shouldered following the birth of her daughter whilst at law school – even the most influential women’s rights advocate of her generation was burdened by the gendered responsibilities placed upon women.

Graduating top of her class, Ginsburg did not receive a single job offer from any law firm in New York: “I struck out on three grounds: I was Jewish, a woman and a mother”, she later said of law firms’ refusal to hire her.

“Gender based discrimination hurts everyone.”

She eventually found a job as a professor at Rutgers Law School, where she taught one of the first classes on women and the law, with many alumni from her course going on to be successful women’s legal advocates throughout the United States. However, her ambition was to be a practising lawyer and in 1971 she filed the lead brief in the Supreme Court case Reed vs Reed. The case looked at whether men could be automatically preferred over men as estate executors; the case was niche and gained literal interest from major legal firms, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg led a successful challenge that saw law struck down on the grounds of gender-based discrimination for the first time, opening up a new front in the fight against discrimination.

"Activated by feminists of both sexes, courts and legislatures have begun to recognise the claim of women to full membership in the class 'persons' entitled to due process guarantees of life and liberty and the equal protection of the laws."

In 1972, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), before becoming the first female tenured professor at her old law school, Columbia. She later became the general counsel for the ACLU where she brought 6 sex-based discrimination cases before the Supreme Court – she won five. Often this was as the legal counsel for men in sex-discrimination cases, using the male perspective in front of a male bench to argue for the importance of equality between the sexes.

"Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you."

During the presidency of Jimmy Carter, she was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals, for the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.) circuit. Her career as a judge was marked often by her centrism, which drew much criticism later in her career when she gained a reputation as the Supreme Court’s most liberal Justice, but was still marked by her continued fight against gender-based discrimination.

In 1993, Bill Clinton nominated her for the United States Supreme Court to replace Byron White at the recommendation of Clinton’s Attorney-General, Janet Reto. She became the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court after Sandra Day O’Connor. Her early years were marked by her lifelong battle against discrimination against women within the law, convincing the court to strike down a male-only admissions policy in the United States vs Virginia. “[the policy] serves the state's sons, it makes no provision whatever for her daughters. That is not equal protection”, she wrote in the court’s majority opinion.

 "Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn't be that women are the exception."

During her Supreme Court career, she was often the most liberal voice on the bench, writing an opinion against the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Whilst also being one of the most significant justices in pushing the court to rule in favour of equal marriage in the 2013 Obergefell vs Hodges case.

In her later years, she became a hero as often the sole fighter against a Trump administration that sought to strike down much of her life’s work. Her fight to prevent the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) being declared unconstitutional, ensuring millions of vulnerable Americans kept their healthcare insurance, and to strike down Trump’s ‘Muslim’ bans were symbolic of why she became an internet sensation, gaining her the nickname: 'Notorious RBG'. Her career is undoubtedly an inspiration for lawyers of all genders who dream of an equal future.

Whilst her health was failing, her resolve was hardening and she fought until the very end – often whilst undergoing treatment for cancer – in order to protect the most vulnerable Americans. Her life was underlined by personal experience of discrimination and arduous battles for equality, but few figures in American history have done so much to fight against a system that, despite many believing is now equal, still discriminates on the basis of sex, race, gender, religion and disability. In her name, the fight for justice and equality will go on.

"Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time."

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