IA Law Review: Acclaimed Biographies: Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020)

Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Remarkable Legacy

By Vynateya Purimetla (’21)

“People ask me sometimes… ‘when will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?’ And my answer is: when there are nine.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York to Jewish immigrant parents. Her mother Celia was a bright student, but was forced to discontinue schooling at 15 because her family chose to send her brother to college. Due to this, Celia wanted her daughter, Ruth, to get a strong education and she emphasized reading and study. Ginsburg attended James Madison High School in Brooklyn and later Cornell University.

At 17, she met Marty Ginsburg, who became her lifelong friend and husband. After graduating with highest honors from Cornell University, she moved to Oklahoma where Marty was called-up as a part of the U.S. Army Reserve. Here, she worked at the Social Security Administration, but was demoted due to her pregnancy, something she took with great affront and indignation.

In 1956, she became a student at Harvard Law School- as one of just 9 women out of 500 in her class. At the Dean’s house, he asked all the female students “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?”. Nevertheless, she persisted, gaining membership in the prestigious Harvard Law Review. Following Marty to New York, she transferred to Columbia Law School, where she also gained membership to the Columbia Law Review. At that point in time, she was the first and only woman to be on two major law reviews.

Although she graduated at the top of her class, she encountered much difficulty finding employment. She was turned down from many clerkships until she was taken in by Judge Palmieri of the Southern District of New York. She then spent decades in academia: as a civil procedure professor at Rutgers University and Columbia University. She also spent some time in Sweden, where she developed her views on gender equality and even learned Swedish for the sole purpose of authoring a civil procedure book with Anders Bruzelius. 

In 1970, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, became a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, and co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. She argued and won many cases in front of the Supreme Court and was later praised by Justice Scalia as the “Thurgood Marshall for her cause [women’s rights]”. Following her extremely successful attorney record, she was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

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

On June 14, 1993, she was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton. She was ranked by the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary as “well-qualified” and was confirmed by a 96-3 vote. Throughout her tenure on the Supreme Court, she was a titan on gender discrimination, abortion rights, and equality. She was dubbed as “The Notorious RBG” after the iconic rapper The Notorious B.I.G for her unwavering opinions and unflinching principles. As the leaders of the Court’s liberal wing, her opinions on Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges pioneered women’s and LGBT rights and trailblazed equality for all.

Even her fiery liberal dissents in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, Gratz v. Bollinger, and Cheney vs. The United States gained more acclaim than the corresponding majority opinions and inspired future law. 

“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.”

A notable point of her tenure on the Supreme Court was her deep and unlikely friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. Although she and Scalia disagreed fundamentally, they were still good friends, bonding over their love for the opera, ice cream, travel, and their shared time on the Court of Appeals. Justice Ginsburg always said “you can disagree without being disagreeable”. 

Throughout her life, Justice Ginsburg fought cancer five times. On September 18, 2020 she died in Washington D.C. due to complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer at 87 years old. When I heard of the news, I was shell shocked. Her resolute principles, legal brilliance, and great character have always inspired and empowered me. She was a determined titan for women’s rights and one of the greatest Supreme Court jurists of all time. Her life was defined by so many barriers (discrimination, cancer, sexism) but she overcame them all with her undeniable intelligence and stone-cold grit. I am deeply saddened by her passing but it brings me solace that she died on the Rosh Hashanah- a deeply symbolic day for the Jewish people. In fact, Jews believe it is one of the holiest days to pass away and indicates a righteous person. Although she is gone, her legacy remains to inspire all Americans and the world as a whole. 

Justice Ginsburg once said “to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you, that’s what I think a meaningful life is.” In that way, her life was truly influential as she shattered glass ceilings, established immovable precedents, and inspired generations of young people- including myself.

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