Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Even though she was only 5' 1" tall, we lost someone who was larger than life on Friday. Ruth Bader Ginsburg - also known as RBG - overcame obstacles that seemed insurmountable to become an associate Supreme Court Justice in 1993. She was a woman, she was Jewish and she was from a middle-class family. In law school she was asked why she would want to take a job away from a man. But she was fiercely determined to do the work she loved and pave the way for women of all backgrounds.
RBG was born Joan Ruth Bader on March 13, 1933 in Brooklyn to Nathan and Celia Bader. Nathan was a Russian emigrant and Celia grew up in New York City. Ruth had an older sister, Marilyn, who died when Ruth was 14 months old. When Ruth started school, Celia decided there were too many “Joans” in her class so she suggested to the teacher that “Ruth” might be less confusing.
Celia always wanted to instill the love of learning and books in her daughter. She started taking her to the library often when Ruth was young. Celia knew that it would take a fighter to overcome the hurdles women faced if they wanted a career in a typically male profession. Celia was an excellent student, graduating from High School at 15 but was unable to attend college because her parents could only afford to send one child and it was their son. Celia fought cancer while Ruth was in high school and passed away the day before Ruth’s graduation.
Ruth attended Cornell University where she met her husband, Martin Ginsburg. After graduating from Cornell, she and Martin were married and moved to Oklahoma. Ruth worked for the Social Security Administration and was demoted after becoming pregnant with their first child. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she enrolled in Harvard Law School – one of 9 women in a class of 500. She transferred to Columbia Law School when Martin took a job in New York City. She graduated in a tie for first in her class.
Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, Ruth worked at Columbia and Rutgers, all the while bumping up against male dominated professions. While doing research for a book, she was encouraged to find that 20-25% of law students in Sweden were women. This furthered her interest in gender equality. In 1972 she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU and served as its general counsel. Over the course of two years, the Project fought 300 gender discrimination cases. During this period, Ruth presented six gender discrimination cases to the Supreme Court and won five of them.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter nominated Ruth to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia where she served until 1993. She was nominated for the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton and became the first Jewish woman to serve on the Court, taking the oath on August 10, 1993.
Ruth and Martin had two children – Jane and James. Ruth was also the grandmother of four. She had numerous bouts of cancer which began 1999 when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She seemed unstoppable, though, never missing a day on the bench during her chemo and radiation treatments. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009, also beating the odds of a typical 3 - 5 year survival rate with early detection.
She was dubbed the nickname “Notorious R.B.G.” (a play on the name of rapper, Notorious B.I.G.) by the law student, Shana Knizhnik who said, “Here you had this diminutive person, this tiny human, and nobody saw her as a badass. But when you see what she has done, over years, with such dignity and grace, it represented that." And Ruth, in typical badass fashion, embraced the nickname.
There is no denying that tiny RBG was a giant among people. She taught us to fight for what we believe in and never give up regardless of the odds. Whether female or male, we look up to her because of her tenacity to overcome huge obstacles and became a legend in her own time. RIP RBG and thanks.