Hers was a long-tail plan: Chip away at the manifestations of social inequality one case at a time, plant “seeds” of social progress with powerful words, and provide ground-up support to the movements effecting positive change, all as a means toward constructing an unshakeable legal foundation for women’s rights and gender equality.
Celia Bader (née Amster) was brilliant. So smart, she graduated from high school at 15. But it was the early 1900s and her parents, unable to afford to further educate all their children, supported her brother’s future instead. Celia went to work to help put her brother through college. But she never forgot her love of learning or her dream of having a career. When it was her turn to be a mother, she took an active role in the education of her daughter, Joan Ruth, instilling in the girl a love of reading, and setting her on the path to becoming a teacher.
Ruth (Joan was dropped when there were too many students of the same name in her class) would not disappoint: She earned a place as an undergraduate at the prestigious Cornell University, one of three Ivy League institutions she would attend. She graduated as the highest-ranking female student in her class, and in 1956 was one of only nine women admitted Harvard Law School’s class of 500. She ultimately graduated from Columbia Law with top honors in 1959. She was the first woman ever to write for a Law Review, and she wrote for two: Harvard and Columbia.
Clearly, Ruth took after Celia in the smarts department. If only mother had lived to see daughter excel. Sadly, she passed away from cancer the day before Ruth finished high school. Ruth later wrote, "My mother was the bravest, strongest person I have ever known, who was taken from me much too soon. I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons."
If Celia was a woman ahead of her time, Ruth, it would turn out, would be at the front lines. She met discrimination at every turn, and not just for being a woman, but for being a mother and a Jew as well.
Before taking her place at Harvard, for example, she moved to Oklahoma with her husband, Martin Ginsburg, so he could fulfill his two-year service with the US Army. Ruth took a job at the Social Security Administration. When they discovered she was pregnant, she was demoted and her pay cut. It was 1955.
Though first in her class at Columbia Law, and despite rave recommendations from her Columbia and Harvard professors, Ruth struggled to find work in both the private and public legal sectors. No one wanted to hire the mother of a five-year-old; and in 1960 the name Ginsburg was a liability no matter the gender.
Ruth eventually took a job as a research associate with a Columbia University professor writing a book on international legal procedure. The gig took her to Sweden, where she was shocked to discover that one in four Swedish law students were women. She even witnessed a female judge, eight months pregnant, working from the bench.
Empowered by this experience, Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to the States ready to fight on behalf of all women. She focused her efforts on teaching – Celia had not been wrong – and at both Rutgers and Columbia Universities, she became the first woman to earn tenure as a law professor. Even more important was her co-founding of the Women's Rights Project (WRP) for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), co-founded in 1920 by Helen Keller.
Professor Ginsburg's fight against discrimination eventually brought her before the nine justices of the highest court in the USA. In 1975, for example, she convinced the Supreme Court to strike down laws that made pregnant women ineligible for unemployment support. By 1980, the "Notorious RBG" had won five cases before the Supreme Court in the name of women's rights.
Also that year, President Jimmy Carter rewarded Ruth's fierce activism by appointing her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.), the most powerful and influential court in the United States after the Supreme Court. She would serve her country in this role for thirteen years.
As an appellate judge, Ginsburg quickly earned a reputation as a consensus builder noted for her well-reasoned, calm arguments. This led to her nomination, in 1993, to the Supreme Court by the newly elected President Bill Clinton.
The Notorious RBG was the second woman ever to be appointed to the Supreme Court, following Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She is now joined by Sonia Sotomayor, also the first Hispanic justice to serve, and Elena Kagan, both nominated by President Barack Obama. At her confirmation, Justice Ginsburg recounted, not without emotion, the decades of sexism and discrimination she had experienced before achieving this formerly unachievable place. She dedicated her appointment to her daughter, Jane, reading a quote from Jane's 1973 high school yearbook: Under "ambition," Jane had written: "To see my mother appointed to the Supreme Court.”
As a Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is known for her brilliance as well as her willingness to stand up for the voiceless and the marginalized. She helped ban gender discrimination in schools and to secure access to safe abortions. Some of her most eloquent decisions were her dissenting opinions against the (male) majority on the bench, such as the 2007 case, Ledbetter vs. Goodyear. Justice Ginsburg’s scathing and public dissent of this case exposed how the legal system enabled employers to systematically underpay women without fear of reprisal. Her protest provoked the US Congress to act, leading to the 2009 "Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act," the first law signed by President Barack Obama, which provided protections for women fighting against wage discrimination.
That was less than 10 years ago.
At the time of this writing, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is now 85 years old. She has dedicated her life to the protection of the rights of all US citizens under the law. And she continues to fight for the rights of woman and other marginalized people. She helps men, families, and same-sex partners navigate the complex issues of gender equality in the 21st century. She continues to serve her people despite the fact that she, like Celia before, suffers from cancer. That's why we are proud to honor her as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero during this Women’s History Month 2018. Shout outs to Alaura Jacobs of Rochester, NY, USA, for nominating her.
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