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  • Eva Shimukus

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Rise to Fame

“My mother told me two things constantly. One was to be a lady, and the other was to be independent.” - Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg - associate justice for the Supreme Court of the United States of America, advocate for women’s rights, a mother and a wife. It seems that there is no end to the list of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s prodigious accomplishments. Besides being a prominent lawyer, she has inadvertently become a pop culture icon, even making an appearance in the new Lego Movie. The Supreme Court Justice has also been portrayed by Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live and Felicity Jones in the 2018 biopic On the Basis of Sex, as well as R.B.G., the award-winning CNN documentary.

At 86 years old, she is currently the oldest Justice serving on the Supreme Court. She grew up with her mother, who was an important female role model for her and taught her the value of a good education and of independence. Celia Bader also worked hard to put her daughter through high school whilst fighting a long battle with cancer, dying the day before Ginsburg’s graduation from James Madison High School in Brooklyn, New York.

Ruth was admitted to Cornell University, which she later described as being the “preferred school for daughters”. At the time, men outnumbered women four to one, meaning that “if she couldn’t find her man there, she was hopeless”. There, she met Martin “Marty” Ginsburg, an 18-year-old law student who respected and admired her intelligence. Four years later in 1954, they married. That same year Justice Ginsburg received her Bachelor of Arts degree, graduating first in her class.

After her husband returned home from his military draft, (soon after the birth of their first child, Jane) she joined him at Harvard Law School. However, in 1956, he contracted cancer. Ginsburg was then faced with caring for both her husband (which meant collecting notes that his friends took during his classes), her young child, and herself while also managing her own work. Despite these obstacles (and only getting 1-2 hours of sleep every night), she made the Harvard Law Review, a feat only a handful of women had achieved before her.

Martin then accepted a position at a law firm in New York, where Ruth transferred after two years at Harvard. At Columbia Law School she made the Law Review and graduated in 1959, once again first in her class.

As a woman who had just completed law school, Ginsburg found it challenging to find work in a profession dominated by men.

“When I graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959, not a law firm in the entire city of New York would employ me.”

After being denied employment by many law firms purely because of her gender, her former professor Gerald Gunther from Columbia University threatened Judge Edmund L. Palmieri of the U.S. District Court, saying that if he did not employ Ginsburg as a law clerk, he would never recommend another Columbia student to his office. Ginsburg was given the position, where she worked for two years.

As an associate director of the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure, she co-authored a book in Swedish on civil procedure in Sweden. Her time at Lund University showed her the amazing progress that had been made concerning gender equality in Sweden, which inspired her as she travelled back to the U.S. to work at Rutgers University.

Next, she began teaching at Columbia, becoming its first female tenured professor. She also served on the American Civil Liberties Union general counsel, where she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project. Between 1973 and 1976, she won five out of six cases of gender discrimination before the Supreme Court.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1972. Photo by Librado Romero for the The New York Times

On April 14th, 1980, she was appointed to the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by President Jimmy Carter. She left service due to her promotion to the Supreme Court on August 9th, 1993 by President Bill Clinton.

In 1996, she wrote for the majority in United States v. Virginia, the Supreme Court’s stance on the Virginia Military Institute’s non-female admissions policy, which she argued as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which addresses the rights of citizens.

On June 27th 2010, her husband Martin died of complications from metastatic cancer, just five days after their 56th wedding anniversary.

Ginsburg started being a topic of pop culture at the start of the Presidency of Barack Obama, after several notable cases including Bush v. Gore, in which the Supreme Court rejected the State of Florida’s request for a recount of the presidential election. She famously ended her dissenting opinion with “I dissent” instead of the customary “I respectfully dissent”.

This sparked an interest in a New York University student who made a Tumblr page entitled “Notorious R.B.G”, a play on the name of the popular 1990s rapper Notorious B.I.G. The page amassed a great following, while also raising awareness of the Supreme Court to a young audience. However, the page quickly became a center for debate surrounding whether Justice Ginsburg should retire so that she could be replaced by another liberal candidate nominated by the Democratic President Barack Obama. Speculators had concerns about her health and old age and argued that she should step down in case of the election of a conservative president. This would mean that the Supreme Court would have a majority of conservative judges. Others referenced Justice Ginsburg’s workout routine and attendance at almost every oral argument to defend her decision to remain in the Supreme Court.

Ginsburg has fought and survived cancer three times, most recently in December 2018. She returned to the court after treatment on February 15th 2019.

Throughout her life, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a tireless advocate for gender equality. In spite of her advanced age, she continues to be a strong force on the United States Supreme Court and is an inspiration to many around the world

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