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.