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Obituary: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Written by: Allison Joyner and Christina Wood
Published on: Oct 7, 2020

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Image credit: Supreme Court of the United States / Public domain [image cropped to fit]

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman ever to serve on the high court, passed away on Sept. 19 from complications of metastatic cancer of the pancreas. She was 87.

“My dear friend and colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an American hero,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in a statement. “She spent her life fighting for the equality of all people, and she was a pathbreaking champion of women’s rights. She served our Court and country with consummate dedication, tirelessness and passion for justice. She has left a legacy few could rival.”

Early Influences

Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 15, 1933. By the time she finished high school, she had lost both her sister, who died of meningitis at the age of 6, and her mother, Celia, who was only 48 when she died of cancer in the days leading up to her daughter’s graduation.

Although she would not be around to watch her daughter triumph, Celia’s influence would continue to shape Ginsburg’s life. She was the American-born daughter of Jewish immigrants from Austria. Like her daughter, she had been an outstanding student. Celia might have dreamed of going to college, but instead she was sent to work in the garment industry to help pay for her brother’s tuition at Cornell University. She wanted more for her daughter.

In Ginsburg’s 2016 book “My Own Words,” she wrote of her mother, saying, “Two things were important to her and she repeated them endlessly. One was to ‘be a lady,’ and that meant to conduct yourself civilly, don’t let emotions like anger or envy get in the way. And the other was to be independent, which was an unusual message for mothers at that time to be giving their daughters.” 

Celia opened a secret college fund for her daughter, setting aside a portion of her household budget every week. She had managed to save $8,000 by the time Ginsburg graduated from high school (the equivalent of approximately $87,000 in today’s money), but her daughter didn’t need the money. She received a full scholarship to Cornell – the same school her uncle had attended.

It was at Cornell that she met Marty Ginsburg – “the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain," she said. They married in 1954. After Marty’s brief stint in the U.S. Army Reserve, the couple moved to Boston, where they both enrolled in Harvard Law School. Following his treatment for testicular cancer, Marty Ginsburg graduated in 1958 and subsequently took a job with a law firm in New York. Ruth Bader Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School and, in 1959, graduated at the top of her class.

Despite her academic success, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was unable to find a job, because she was a woman – and, by that time, the mother of a small child. It was only with the assistance of one of her professors, Gerald Gunther, that she was able to secure a judicial clerkship.

With so many doors closed to her, Ginsburg turned to academia. In 1963, she landed a job teaching at Rutgers Law School. It was there that she began fighting back against the gender discrimination she was only too familiar with.

In an interview with NPR, she once said, "I do think that I was born under a very bright star. Because if you think about my life, I get out of law school. I have top grades. No law firm in the city of New York will hire me. I end up teaching; it gave me time to devote to the movement for evening out the rights of women and men.”

On the Bench

Ginsburg argued her first case before the Supreme Court in 1971 – and won. By the time President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980, she had argued six gender-related cases before the high court and won five of them.

In addition to helping to create the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, she had also become the first female tenured professor at Columbia University. It was at this time that her future colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, said “she became the leading (and very successful) litigator on behalf of women’s rights – the Thurgood Marshall of that cause, so to speak.”

President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993. She was approved with a nonpartisan show of support that would be unthinkable today – the vote in the Senate was 96 to 3.

Ginsburg continued her quest for gender equality during her 27-year career on the high court, hearing landmark cases like U.S. v. Virginia, which struck down Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions policy in 1996. Her dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, which was decided in 2007, famously inspired Congress to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for employees to win back pay in discrimination claims.

Her opinions – particularly her dissents – often drew attention, but it was Ginsburg’s unconventional combination of grit and charm as well as her work on behalf of women’s rights that earned her the devoted following of millions of young Americans and prompted NPR to refer to her as “a special kind of feminist, both decorous and dogged.”

In 2013, Ginsburg emerged as a cultural icon after social media dubbed her the “Notorious RBG,” a play on the name of rapper Notorious B.I.G., who also hailed from Brooklyn. Publication of a biography of the same name in 2015 and a similarly titled Academy Award-nominated documentary in 2018, helped to propel Ginsburg to rock-star status.

Ginsburg’s love of opera, her unlikely friendship with conservative justice Scalia and her early morning workouts with a personal trainer all added to her cachet – as did her incredible work ethic and her passion for justice, which guided her through multiple battles with cancer and the loss of her beloved husband of 56 years in 2010.

“Our nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., said in a statement. “We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her -- a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”

In the days following her death, thousands filed by to pay their respects as Ginsburg lay in repose at the Supreme Court. Befitting her stature and her many contributions to the law, she then became the first woman to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. She is buried beside her husband in Arlington Cemetery.