The Notorious RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Written by Lissa Reidel

Women’s health is influenced enormously by legal status. Reproductive rights, equal pay, and access to the same educational opportunities as men determines the health of women and their children. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has made a huge difference in the lives of women and continues to do so. A new film highlights her brilliant strategies and accomplishments.

Her mother went to work at age 15 in order to help put her brother through college. 

At Harvard Law, Dean Erwin Griswold hosted a dinner for the women students—and asked each how they justified taking a spot that would have gone to a man. 

Graduating first in her class from law school,  firms refused to even interview her for a job.

Before going to law school, Ruth took the civil service exam and qualified to be a claims adjustor—but when she mentioned she was three months pregnant, her civil service ranking was reduced, and with it, her title and pay. 

Was Ruth daunted? In fact, these early experiences and the knowledge that they were common to women, motivated her entire career.

“I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks,” she explained to the Supreme Court in her first argument there, quoting  Sarah Grimké, abolitionist and women’s suffragist.

In her 80’s, Ruth has become a superstar, mentor, role model, and heroine to the young people who admire and adore her. As the Guardian points out, “In the new documentary RBG, directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen seek to answer the mystery of how such a quietly spoken and restrained person not exactly renowned for her effervescence – her children kept a record when they were little of the very rare occasions she was humorous called Mummy Laughs – morphed into a hipster icon.”

“She is like a cyborg,” says her personal trainer, keeping watch over his 85 year old client as she goes on to hold a steely plank then perform a series of bone-rattling squats. “And when I say cyborg, she is like a machine.

Adversaries on the court, close friends in their personal lives: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia in Washington National Opera’s 1994 production of “Ariadne auf Naxos.”


Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent a lifetime flourishing in the face of adversity before being appointed a Supreme Court justice, where she successfully fought against gender discrimination and unified the liberal block of the court.

Ginsburg’s personal struggles never deterred her in any way from reaching and exceeding her academic goals, even when her husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1956, during her first year of law school. Ginsburg took on the challenge of keeping her sick husband up-to-date with his studies while maintaining her own position at the top of the class. At Harvard, Ginsburg tackled the challenges of motherhood and of a male-dominated school where she was one of nine females in a 500-person class. She faced gender-based discrimination from even the highest authorities there. She served as the first female member of the Harvard Law Review. Her husband recovered from cancer, graduated from Harvard, and moved to New York City to accept a position at a law firm there. Ruth Bader Ginsburg had one more year of law school left, so she transferred to Columbia Law School and served on their law review as well. She graduated first in her class at Columbia Law in 1959.

Even her exceptional academic record was not enough to shield her from the gender-based discrimination women faced in the workplace in the 1960s. She had difficulties finding a job until a favorite Columbia professor explicitly refused to recommend any other graduates before U.S. District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri hired Ginsburg as a clerk. She was a professor at Rutgers University Law School and taught at Columbia where she became the first female professor at Columbia to earn tenure.

Ginsburg directed the influential Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union during the 1970s. In this position, she led the fight against gender discrimination and successfully argued six landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Ginsburg took a broad look at gender discrimination, fighting not just for the women left behind, but for the men who were discriminated against as well. Ginsburg experienced her share of gender discrimination, even going so far as to hide her pregnancy from her Rutgers colleagues. Ginsburg accepted Jimmy Carter’s appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980. She served on the court for thirteen years until 1993, when Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Ruth began her career as a justice where she left off as an advocate, fighting for women’s rights. In 1996, Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, holding that qualified women could not be denied admission to Virginia Military Institute. Her style in advocating from the bench matches her style from her time at the ACLU: slow but steady, and calculated.

Instead of creating sweeping limitations on gender discrimination, she attacked specific areas of discrimination and violations of women’s rights one at a time, so as to send a message to the legislatures on what they can and cannot do. Her attitude is that major social change should not come from the courts, but from Congress and other legislatures. This method allows for social change to remain in Congress’ power while also receiving guidance from the court.

Ginsburg does not shy away from giving pointed guidance when she feels the need. She dissented in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. where the plaintiff, a female worker being paid significantly less than males with her same qualifications, sued under Title VII but was denied relief under a statute of limitations issue. The facts of this case mixed her passion of federal procedure and gender discrimination. She broke with tradition and wrote a highly colloquial version of her dissent to read from the bench. She also called for Congress to undo this improper interpretation of the law in her dissent, and then worked with President Obama to pass the very first piece of legislation he signed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, a copy of which hangs proudly in her office.

While many people speculate as to when the 83-year-old justice will retire, any assumption of frailty would be utterly misplaced. Ginsburg works with a personal trainer in the Supreme Court’s exercise room, and notably, can lift more than both Justices Breyer and Kagan. Ginsburg has not missed a day of oral arguments, not even when she was undergoing chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer, after surgery for colon cancer, or the day after her husband passed away in 2010. Justice Ginsburg has proven time and again that she is a force to be reckoned with, and those who doubt her capacity to effectively complete her judicial duties need only to look at her record in oral arguments, where she is still the among the most avid questioners on the bench today.

Cases argued
Duren v. Missouri (1978)
Califano v. Goldfarb (1976)
Edwards v. Healy (1974)
Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1974)
Kahn v. Shevin (1973)
Frontiero v. Richardson (1972)

About the author

Lissa Reidel

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