The Life and Legacy of RBG
by Anjali Shiyamsaran | published Jun. 7th, 2021
On Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87 due to complications from metastatic cancer of the pancreas.
Renowned as the cultural and feminist icon whose fight for equal rights broke countless boundaries set by patriarchy and discrimination, Ginsburg served on the Supreme Court for more than 27 years following her legal advocacy for women’s rights in the 1970s.
Of her impactful legacy, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Our nation has lost a justice of historic stature. 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.”
Ginsburg, born to Nathan and Celia Bader in 1933, was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. While growing up, she greatly admired her mother, a steadfast figure who taught Ginsburg two profound messages: “One was to be a lady ... and the other was to be independent,” Ginsburg recalled in 2012.
Ginsburg attended Cornell University on a full scholarship, where she studied government and graduated first in her class in 1954. Following her marriage to Martin Ginsburg, Ginsburg then studied at Harvard Law School as one of only nine women in a class of 500 students.
Her upward scholastic journey wasn’t without its share of sexist remarks from men like the dean of the law school at the time, who had asked Ginsburg and the eight other women in the class why they occupied “a seat that could be held by a man.” Despite such disparaging statements, Ginsburg became the first woman named to the esteemed Harvard Law Review, later transferring to Columbia Law School and once again graduating first in her class.
Eric P. Robinson is an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina who specializes in media and internet law policy.
“Women of her generation had to be better than everyone else in order to achieve,” he said. “She had to be that good to prove the doubters [wrong]. That was an unfair burden on her, but by doing that, she blazed a trail that other women could follow.”
In spite of her impressive academic qualifications at the time of graduation, 14 separate law firms rejected Ginsburg’s applications for employment as a result of gender discrimination. Instead, she clerked for a judge, and taught at Columbia as the school’s first female tenured professor. Ginsburg also served as the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing for gender equality in six landmark cases before the Supreme Court.
In 1993, Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court as its second female Supreme Court justice in American history. When nominating Ginsburg, former President Bill Clinton said, “Throughout her life she has repeatedly stood for the individual, the person less well-off, the outsider in society and has given those people greater hope by telling them that they have a place in our legal system, by giving them a sense that the Constitution and the laws protect all the American people, not simply the powerful.”
RBG’s Most Important Supreme Court Rulings
In 1996, Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg joined the majority in voting for the right to attend any public university, regardless of gender. In her opinion during the United States v. Virginia case, Ginsburg wrote, “Generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.”
“If you’re a woman, she created your life,” Robinson said. “Your ability to go to college or go to graduate school, your ability to have a job, your ability to have your own money and have your own bank account separate from your father or your husband. That’s really her legacy.”
During the Olmstead v. LC case in 1996, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson advocated for the rights of people with mental disabilities to live in their communities as opposed to institutions. Ginsburg agreed that the Americans with Disabilities Act covered the case, asserting that those with mental disabilities should be able to participate in society.
Ginsburg staunchly advocated for women’s rights to have control over their own bodies, stating in her 1993 confirmation hearings that “[whether to have an abortion or not is] a decision that [a woman] must make for herself. And when government controls that decision for her, she’s being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”
In 2007, Lilly Ledbetter sued her employer, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., for paying her a lower wage than her male coworkers. Although the majority of Supreme Court justices sided with Ledbetter’s employer, Ginsburg continued to protest vehemently against the gender wage gap. Her call to action in support of the right to a fair wage later sparked the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2019, which protects workers against pay discrimination.
Despite common misconception, Ginsburg didn’t advocate only for women’s rights. Throughout her legal career, she made sure to defend and liberate men in her fight for justice as well. From helping a male widower gain access to his wife’s social security benefits in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld to defending a frat boy’s right to drink beer in Craig v. Boren, Ginsburg proved her ardent commitment to true equality and freedom for all genders.
Impact and Legacy
Ginsburg paired her “tough-as-nails” spirit with a serious and soft-spoken disposition and a quiet sense of humor. In present years, she was the subject of a documentary, a biopic, an operetta, merchandise headlining the nickname “Notorious RBG,” a Time magazine cover and frequent Saturday Night Live sketches. As a result of her increasing recognition, Ginsburg had become a hero to people worldwide, even more so after her intense workout routine went viral in 2018.
First year Biomedical Engineering student Gemma Sobieraj is one of the many people who feel personally impacted by Ginsburg’s powerful and inspiring legacy.
“As someone who is going into a fairly male-dominated field of work [myself], [Ginsburg is] just a good role model,” Sobieraj said. “She is someone that people could learn something from and look up to and realize that, despite what society says or despite what your male coworkers or even fellow students say, that’s not going to stop you and you’re still just as capable.”
When having conversations with others about conflicting opinions, Sobieraj underscored the difference between having an argument and engaging in healthy discussion, an ideal that she felt Ginsburg’s legal dissents often reflected. “Advocacy is a really important thing, and you need to be able to communicate, stand up for yourself and if you don’t think someone is correct or if you don’t agree with their opinion, [be] able to ... have a discussion and explain, ‘Here’s what I think and here’s why.’”
In the years before Ginsburg’s death, the justice was asked whether she held any regrets, and replied, “I do think I was born under a very bright star.” Although a memorable life so dedicated to equality, empowerment and justice has now come to an end, Ginsburg’s adamant resolve to advocate for underrepresented communities continues to embolden both present and future generations.