United States Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died of cancer over the weekend, was a passionate, astute, outspoken advocate of women’s rights, civil liberties and the rule of law.
Born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, to a working class immigrant family, Ruth Ginsburg’s greatest influence was her mother, Celia, who encouraged her to be independent, to read, to seek knowledge and get an education, despite having sacrificed her own to work and fund her brother’s (Ruth’s uncle) schooling. Celia passed away only days before Ruth’s graduation from high school.
After high school, Ruth earned her bachelor’s degree in government from Cornell University in 1954, finishing first in her class. She worked in Social Security Administration for a time, but was demoted when she became pregnant with her first child.
Shortly after, she decided to study law, and was one of only nine women in a law class of 500 at Harvard. When her husband became sick and they needed to return to New York, Ruth transferred to Columbia where she graduated in the first tier.
She’s been quoted as saying that she became a lawyer for ‘selfish’ reasons: “I thought I could do a lawyer’s job better than any other.”
After graduation she became a professor at Rutgers University — having been denied employment at law firms because of her gender. Ruth has often described her early career setbacks, saying, “I had three strikes against me: one, I was Jewish. Two, I was a woman. But the killer was that I was a mother of a four-year-old child.”
In the 1960s, she volunteered for the American Civil Liberties Union and went on to join the Board, During the 1970s, she also served as the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, for which she argued six landmark cases on gender equality before the U.S. Supreme Court on important issues from pay parity to abortion rights.
Incidentally, she had previously been denied a clerkship at the Supreme Court on the basis of being a woman, but these setbacks did not deter her drive or ambition to stand up for what she believed in. She remained optimistic that it was possible to effect change: “ I am ever hopeful that if the court has a blind spot today, its eyes will be open tomorrow.” …
Ruth Bader Ginsburg firmly believed that all people, irrespective of race, colour, religion, social status or gender, were entitled to equal rights, a cause she fought for at every opportunity.
One of the cases she won before the Supreme Court involved a portion of the Social Security Act that favored women over men because it granted certain benefits to widows but not widowers. In another she represented a male caregiver who was looking after his elderly mother, and successfully argued that he should be eligible for caregiver tax credit like women.
She was an open champion of the #metoo movement. And when the Supreme Court handed down its historic decision with a 5–4 majority ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states, Ruth Ginsburg is considered to have been instrumental in the decision, having shown public support for the idea in past years by officiating same-sex marriages and by challenging arguments against same sex unions as the opportunity arose.
She was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1980 and appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and in these roles was able to precipitate the social change she so passionately believed in.
In 1999, she won the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award for her contributions to gender equality and civil rights.
Despite having many bouts of cancer during her lifetime, none of which kept her in a sick bed for very long, she finally succumbed to the disease on 18 September, surrounded by family.
She once remarked that she wanted to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has”.
She lived this philosophy in every aspect of her life and career.
Ruth Bader Gingsburg’s legacy is an important one, and long may her life serve to be an inspiration not just to women, but to men too, to strive for change, and to continue to fight for justice, compassion and equality wherever it is seen to be deficient, but to fight for it respectfully, and peacefully.
In Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s immortal words, “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Rest in peace.