Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Passes the Torch

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking at ICRW’s 2016 Champions for Change award ceremony.

On Friday, September 18th, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Brooklyn-born champion of women’s rights and gender equality – and second woman in history to sit on the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court – passed her torch to the next generation, leaving behind a legacy unparalleled.

Born March 15, 1933, Joan Ruth Bader grew up in a first- and second-generation immigrant household. Ruth was the second child of Nathan and Celia, but at only 14 months old, she lost her 6-year-old sister Marilyn to meningitis. Ruth’s parents pushed her to excel in school. Celia, herself, graduated high school at age 15 but had to step aside, while her brother went on to attend college. A common sacrifice at the time, this only further motivated Celia to ensure her daughter’s education would not be sidetracked. Sadly, Celia died shortly before Ruth graduated from high school, but she instilled in Ruth a tenacity for overcoming obstacles that would carry her through to the highest court in the land.

In 1954, Ruth Bader married Martin D. Ginsburg days after graduating from Cornell University. Her tenacity was soon tested. Following the birth of her first child in 1955, Ginsburg was promptly demoted from her role at the Social Security Administration. The following year, she was one of only nine women enrolled at Harvard Law School, in a class size of about 500.

As a woman and a mother, Ginsburg faced and bore witness to the very same discrimination she would later challenge in the courtroom time and again. Following her graduation from Columbia Law School in 1959 – where she tied for first in her class – Ginsburg did everything she could to land a job to launch her law career. Despite her exemplary marks at Columbia, she was overlooked time and again because of her gender. In fact, then Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter sloughed off a strong recommendation, saying of Ginsburg that he “just wasn’t ready to hire a woman.” Being refused clerkships like this and denied jobs at law firms, Ginsburg turned her attention to academia.

In 1961, Ginsburg traveled to Sweden to conduct research at Lund University for a book on civil procedure. What Ginsburg found there stood in stark contrast to her days at Harvard. While less than two percent of those admitted at Harvard Law were women, law programs across the country in Sweden were composed of 20-25 percent women. Her time in Sweden made quite the impact on Ginsburg, shedding light on what greater representation and opportunities for women could look like.

Back to the U.S. in 1963 and hired by Rutgers Law School, Ginsburg became one of less than 20 female law professors across the entire country. Back to the reality she had left behind, she was immediately faced with pay inequity. According to current Justice Elena Kagan, “Rutgers told [Ginsburg] that she was going to be paid less than her male colleagues because, quote, your husband has a very good job.” 

These experiences helped shape the woman who served for 27 years as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. The discrimination she faced in her life and career was immeasurable, but it seemed to light a fire in her that lasted until her passing last week at the age of 87. 

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

– Ruth Bader Ginsburg

This fire ignited a storied career, stacking up  accomplishment after accomplishment, as she methodically  dismantled institutional and systemic inequities. In 1970, while still at Rutgers, Ginsburg served as the first-ever faculty advisor for the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first law journal in the country devoted to women’s rights. From 1972-80, she became the first tenured woman at Columbia Law School and introduced the law school’s first Sex Discrimination Law course.

As she began her career at Columbia, Ginsburg also co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, where she won five out of six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court from 1973-76. For one of those cases, Ginsburg wrote a brief for Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71, which convinced the Supreme Court to protect women from sex discrimination by extending the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Ginsburg quickly became known as a champion for gender equality. Understanding that advances in women’s rights alone would likely proceed too slowly in a country so deeply entrenched in inequality, Ginsburg’s litigation brilliantly demonstrated that men, as well as women, are harmed by gender inequities in society and the law.  In 1972, for example, she took on a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Moritz was a never-married man who served as a caregiver to his 93-year-old mother. He was audited by the Internal Revenue Service for taking a care-giver deduction, as afforded to women or widowed or divorced men. However, never-married men were not allowed to take this deduction. In another case in 1975, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, Ginsburg represented a widower who was being denied Social Security benefits to support child care, a benefit guaranteed to a widow. Ginsburg made her arguments in both of these cases before the Supreme Court and deftly turned the tables. And she has been turning them since, rising in prominence over the following decades also as a proponent of LGBTQ rights – and even “performed many same-sex marriage ceremonies — the first Supreme Court justice to do so.”

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where she remained until her nomination to the Supreme Court. Following the 1993 nomination by President Bill Clinton, the U.S. Senate confirmed her by a 96-3 vote, making Ginsburg the second woman after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to sit on the court.

Ginsburg was a staunch advocate for reproductive rights, including the right to an abortion. In a 2009 interview, she told The New York Times Magazine’s Emily Bazelon, “The basic thing is that the government has no business making that choice for a woman,” an ideology that continues to be  contested, and which has resulted in numerous state- and federal-level legal challenges from both sides of the political aisle, which have both national and international implications (e.g., The Helms Amendment and the Global Gag Rule).

ICRW President Sarah Degnan Kambou presented U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with the Champion for Change award for vision in 2016.

Through all of this, Ginsburg never forgot what shaped her. The daughter and granddaughter of immigrants, her connection to the world outside of the U.S. remained steadfast. In fact, Ginsburg believed strongly in the importance of cross-pollination among legal systems worldwide, stating in her “A Decent Respect to the Opinions of [Human]Kind”: The Value of a Comparative Perspective in Constitutional Adjudication that “[t]he U.S. judicial system will be the poorer, I have urged, if we do not both share our experience with, and learn from, legal systems with values and a commitment to democracy similar to our own.”

In 2016, five days before her 83rd birthday, ICRW awarded Justice Ginsburg the Champions for Change award for vision. She received many other prestigious awards and honorary degrees over the years, and in 2002 was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Ginsburg devoted her life to lifting up others and breaking down the barriers that faced them. For decades, she fought to preserve reproductive rights, ensure equal opportunities for women and girls, guarantee protections for the LGBTQ community, and uphold civil liberties. She was a public servant, an ally, and a friend. But she also left us with a charge – to take up the mantle of advancing equality. For her, the work was never done. The torch has now been passed. Rest in power, Justice Ginsburg. Taking her lead, let’s get to work.

Dissents speak to a future age. It's not simply to say, 'My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.' But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that's the dissenter's hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.

– Ruth Bader Ginsburg