The life of the notorious RBG

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her SCOTUS portrait. By Supreme Court of the United States via WikiCommons

A review of her life and some of her most impactful cases

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a pioneer of the women’s rights movement and an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, passed away on Sept. 19 of pancreatic cancer. The feminist icon won five out of the six cases she argued in the Supreme Court and was also known for her famous dissents. 

From the beginning, Ginsburg’s goal was to put women on the same plane as men. She started her law journey at Cornell University from 1950 to 1954, just before second-wave feminism. At the time, the university was considered the ideal place for women as there were, on average, four men to every woman. 

Ginsburg later moved on to Harvard University, where she graduated as one of nine women in a class of 523 men and made the Law Review, making her one out of 25 of the smartest students in her class. She was barred from entering the library of the university and was told it was because she was a woman. At the famous Dean’s Dinner, her and the other eight women were asked what they were doing attempting to occupy a seat that could be occupied by a man. 

She refused to stop learning even after she became a mother. Ginsburg later started at Columbia University while her husband was diagnosed with cancer. A typical day for her once the school day was over consisted of typing up the notes her husband missed in class, taking care of her son, sleeping for two hours, going to the court at 9 a.m. for a seating and then she would take the weekend to catch up on sleep. She finished her schooling at Columbia in 1959, and not a single law firm in New York would hire her. 

From 1969 to 1972, Ginsburg took up teaching law at Rutgers University. In 1973, she represented the American Civil Liberties Union in her first case: Frontiero v. Richardson. This would become a landmark case before the Supreme Court, asking that for pay, general treatment and allowances, the military establishment could not consider women inferior to men. Ginsburg did her best in order to make the nine male Supreme Court justices at the time understand that this was an ongoing issue for women. 

She made a statement to the court, urging the men to see the discrimination they had accepted as a normal way of life.  

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court. Women today face discrimination in employment as pervasive and more subtle than discrimination encountered by minority groups. Sex classifications imply a judegment of inferiority. The sex criterion stigmatizes when it is used to protect women from competing for higher paying jobs, promtotions. It assumes that all women are preoccupied with home and children. These distinctions have a common effect, they help keep women in her place, a place inferior to that occupied by men in our society.

Confronting several other laws in place at this time held women back, Ginsburg spent most of her career fighting to dismantle them. In 12 states, men could not be legally charged with raping their wives, women could not get a credit card unless their husband was a co-signer and employers in most states could legally fire a woman for being pregnant. 

In 1975, she proved gender-based discrimination hurts both men and women. Ginsburg represented Stephen Wiesenfeld in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, as Wiesenfeld was unable to collect social security as a sole-surviving parent after his wife died in childbirth. In the Supreme Court she was able to gain unanimous judgment in his favor. 

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter nominated Ginsburg for the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Following this, President Bill Clinton nominated her in 1993 for Supreme Court justice; she was in her 60s at the time. 

United States v. Virginia in 1996 was Ginsburg’s first women’s rights case before the Supreme Court. The Justice Department was challenging the exclusion of women from the Virginia Military Institute. A woman could accomplish everything asked of a man by VMI, Ginsburg successfully argued, making the institute the last in the state to get rid of single-sex attendance. 

One of Ginsburg’s more famous dissents came to light in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in 2000. Lilly Ledbetter earned 40% of what her male co-workers were receiving and the Supreme Court determined she filed her case too late after the paycheck. Ginsburg did not agree with the decision.  

So when the time came, she filed a passionate dissent. 

“The court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.” Ginsburg said in her 2000 dissent. “Congress intended to govern real world employment practices and that world is what the court ignores today. Initially you may not know that men are receiving more. Only over time is there a strong cause to suspect that discrimination is at work.” 

Another famous dissent came from Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. in 2013. The majority decision of the Supreme Court allowed employers to deny insurance coverage of birth control. 

“The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives,” Ginsburg said in her 2013 dissent. 

The last case Ginsburg worked was in June of this year. Patent and Trademark Office v. B.V. was a federal trademark case. In Ginsburg’s filed opinion she notes that the name is too generic to be given a federal trademark. 

Until the end, Ginsburg fought for the rights of women using the justice system. Even after her diagnosis with colorectal cancer in 1999 and later pancreatic cancer in 2009, she never missed a day on the bench. Ginsburg was a hero, a champion of women’s rights, and her representation will be missed in the Supreme Court.

Catherine Norby sits posing in a RBG shirt. Catherine Norby/Lariat