They say you’ll always remember where you were when you find out one of your heroes died and I definitely think that is true. On September 18th, 2020, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in her Washington, DC home surrounded by her family. She was 87 years old.
Just the headline from NPR announcing her passing was enough to send me into tears and for some that might seem like a bit of an overreaction. However, for me and millions of others, Justice Ginsburg, or more lovingly known as RBG, was more than the sassy, queen of dissent. At just 5’1, RBG was a giant. She fought tirelessly both during and before her time in the Supreme Court for gender equality and never let herself be defined by the opinions of others. This is the legacy of the Notorious RBG.
In 1956, Justice Ginsburg was one of only nine women out of over 500 men enrolled at Harvard Law School. It’s hard to imagine a time when higher education was split so largely by gender but for women in the 1950s aspiring to be a lawyer was not a normal thing. Justice Ginsburg often recalled a dinner in which the Dean of the Harvard Law School invited all nine female students to his residence and asked them what exactly they were doing taking a spot from a man. She also recalls a time in which she was shunned from an on-campus library due the fact that she was a woman.
It was at Harvard where she learned how to multitask. Her husband and biggest supporter, Marty Ginsburg, was diagnosed with testicular cancer while they were both attending the Law School. Justice Ginsburg attended both her classes and her husband’s in order to make sure they both succeeded.
Due to her husband’s job relocation, Justice Ginsburg transferred would not receive a degree from Harvard, despite being the first female to make the Harvard Law Review. Instead she transferred to Columbia University where she ultimately graduated first in her class in 1959. Despite her academic accomplishments and glowing endorsements from her male peers, RBG struggled to get even a clerkship. In 1963 she turned to higher education, obtaining a professorship at Rutgers University.
In 1972 Justice Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American civil Liberties Union where she eventually became general counsel. It was there that she began to focus exclusively on women’s rights, participating in nearly 300 gender discrimination cases by 1974. During her time at the ACLU, Justice Ginsburg argued six cases in front of the Supreme Court, winning five of them.
While her work with the ACLU is significant because of the outcomes it is also significant because of the strategies she used when arguing her cases. The genius behind Justice Ginsburg’s work was her ability to target specific statutes that had already been decided by the courts. She would use each victory to strategically dismantle oppressive laws and institutions in the United States. Justice Ginsburg also often chose cases with male plaintiffs finding that the all male Supreme Court would be more sympathetic to someone they can relate to.
In spite of all her success arguing in front of the Supreme Court she would not be appointed to a Federal Court until Jimmy Carter’s attempt to diversify the justice system in 1980. She would serve in the United States Court of Appeals until her appointment to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
At the time of her appointment Justice Ginsburg was not the most liberal justice on the court. She often found herself more on the moderate side of the spectrum and even formed a deep friendship with Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. But as the United States executive branch of government slid more to the right she found herself becoming more left leaning and ultimately became the voice of dissent on the court.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent over two decades on the Supreme Court and countless more in courtrooms across the country fighting for a better America for all of us. She is an example of what true democracy looks like, always fighting for those who needed someone. Whether it be gender equality, voting rights or the fight for LGBTQ+ marriage rights the Notorious RBG was always there.
Although she will no longer take her place on the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will always have her place in the history of the United States. She will be remembered as a champion and we must honor her legacy. Like RBG always said: “Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”