The Life and Legacy of the Notorious R.B.G.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her chambers in Washington, Aug. 23, 2013. | Todd Heisler/The New York Times/Redux

On September 18, 2020, America lost a giant. The first woman laid to rest at the U.S. State Capitol on Friday, September 25th, 2020, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was affectionately called the Notorious R.B.G. Many believe the word “notorious” has a negative connotation due to its affiliation with drug lords and mafia bosses, but as it relates to Ruth Bader Ginsburg it simply means she was a force of nature. Most know her as an Associate Justice for the United States Supreme Court. But many don’t know just how many battles she fought in the Supreme Court on behalf of women, people of color, the LGTBQIA+ community, and minorities in every sense.

The Ginsburg School of Law

Justice Ginsburg attended Cornell University and graduated with a degree in Government in 1954. She then went on to be one of 9 women in a class of over 500 students to graduate from Harvard Law. A determined woman, Justice Ginsburg made sure she got her foot in the door as soon as she graduated. After becoming a law clerk in the US District Court, a research associate, and associate director for the Project of International Procedure at Columbia Law School, Justice Ginsburg had only just begun. Soon she’d become a Professor at Rutgers University School of Law in 1972. It wouldn’t take long before her work would blaze the trail for women in academia as she would soon become became the first woman to become a professor at Columbia University School of Law.

Photo Credit: Columbia Law School 1970s: Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59 encourages students in her seminar on sex discrimination law to assist her in preparing to argue on behalf of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice Ginsburg accomplished much in her life before she became an Associate Justice. She represented survivors and victims in front of the Supreme Court in many sex discrimination cases when she was an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU. However, her impact surged when she was appointed and sworn in by President Bill Clinton as the first Female to sit on the Supreme Court in 1993. When Justice Ginsburg stepped in, filling the seat that Justice Byron White had previously held, she wasted no time getting to work. Justice Ginsburg had finally reached a place where she had the power to provoke real change and felt it was her responsibility to speak for those who were not being heard.

In this June 15, 1993, file photo, President Bill Clinton applauds as Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg prepares to speak in the Rose Garden of the White House,after the president announced he would nominate Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. Ginsburg, 60, a federal appeals judge, will fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Justice Byron White. Ginsburg, a diminutive yet towering women’s rights champion who became the court’s second female justice, has died at her home in Washington. (AP Photo/Doug Mills, File) [ DOUG MILLS | AP ]

The Voice Against Gender-Based Discrimination

As a Jewish woman, Justice Ginsburg undoubtedly faced many challenges. Instead of using the discrimination she faced as an excuse to give up, she used it as an opportunity to spark her passion for cases that dealt with discrimination based on sex or gender. Her attention to these cases made Ruth Bader Ginsburg stand out among the many other Justices in the Supreme Court. She presented men as the victims, not women. This was an interesting approach that many did not understand or agree with, but Justice Ginsburg argued that every struggle men face, women face as well. Her strategy was to prove that gender based discrimination hurt both men and woman.

Justice Ginsburg fought for gender equity and equality, and therefore she represented both men and women she felt were being discriminated against. One of the first cases she ever represented, even before she was Justice Ginsburg, was the Frontiero v. Richardson case in 1973. Sharon Frontiero was a second lieutenant in the Air Force and was not receiving a housing allowance like all the other lieutenants that were men. She was told that she was lucky to be allowed to serve the United States of America.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sits in her chambers in 2002 in Washington, DC. DAVID HUME KENNERLY/GETTY IMAGES

The Attorney You Wanted

As soon as Justice Ginsburg heard about the case, she knew she wanted to represent Frontiero. It was her first time making an oral argument and to the surprise of many people that knew her quiet and reserved demeanor, she knew exactly how to work the room. She was aware she was dealing with men who didn’t believe gender discrimination existed, so she made it her plan to prove that it not only existed, but was prominent in the military by providing multiple examples and a well worded argument.

It was cases like Frontiero v. Richardson that paved the way for laws to be changed so that those who came after did not have to suffer as those before them. Justice Ginsburg fought for gender equality not just women’s rights. For example, she worked on cases like Stephen Wiesenfeld’s who was a single father and was denied the benefits that a sole surviving parent was supposed to receive. So RBG went to war for him. By this time, in 1975, no one was shocked that she won this case as well.

The War for Women’s Rights

There were countless cases that RBG represented as an attorney, and later as a judge. Her first women’s rights case in the supreme court was the 1996 case of the United States v. Virginia. The Virginia Military Institute had a male-only admissions policy and Justice Ginsburg ruled this unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment. Justice Ginsburg argued that there were women that could meet the standards that VMI held their men to, and given the opportunity, these women could serve just as well. To almost no one’s surprise, Justice Ginsburg won the majority on this case. The women that joined the next class of VMI faced with many struggles and hardships, but over time, proved Justice Ginsburg right. They were just as capable as the men of VMI were.

The Faith of a Fighter

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Jewish faith was important to her. On countless occasions, Justice Ginsburg discussed her devotion to her faith. She was born and raised in a devoted Jewish home, she attended a conservative synagogue, and even served as a junior rabbi at religious camps. Justice Ginsburg was proud to be a Jew. However, many saw her as abandoning her faith. Although she was proud, she had her own relationship with her faith and was not concerned in the slightest about outside opinions.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her chambers in Washington, Aug. 23, 2013. | Todd Heisler/The New York Times/Redux

Justice Ginsburg noticed gender discrimination inside of her faith community at the young age of 17. The women in her mother’s Shiva were not counted as being present, simply because they were women. However, she did not only experience discrimination from her faith, but often times because of her faith. In her freshman year at Cornell, she was placed on a floor with all Jewish women so as to not “contaminate” others. Despite the hardships that were brought on by her faith, in addition to being a woman who saw herself as an equal to men, she never gave up or dialed down her faith in order to make others comfortable. RBG never did anything that made others comfortable, but that was her style.

The Woman Who Made History

Ginsburg at her Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1993. Credit…Stephen Crowley

As most RBG admirers know, she

…asked no favor for her sex, all she asked of our brethren is that they take their feet of our necks.

There were multiple cases that Justice Ginsburg was involved in that quite literally made history. RBG fought to change laws and seek equality literally until she took her last breath. As she laid on her death bed in her final hours, she asked one last thing of us. She asked that she not be replaced until a new president is installed. Justice Ginsburg was one of the few liberal Justices in the Supreme Court and if she were to be replaced with our current administration, the spot would be filled with a conservative justice. If this were to happen, future cases would not be addressed with the same caution and compassion that Justice Ginsburg brought in her service. The current administration has hopes of replacing her before the next election. Her supporters have not the power to decide who will replace her, but many still plan to fight in honor of the dearly departed Notorious R.B.G.

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