The Passing of an Icon: The Notorious RBG

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Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons

Audrey Smith, Writer

“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you”- Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

On Friday September 18, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman nominated to the Supreme Court, died at the age of 87 after her long fight with colon and pancreatic cancer. Famously known as RBG, the late female icon’s death is felt in hearts across the nation. Her views on gay marriage, healthcare, abortion, and women’s rights made her one of the most progressive justices on the Supreme Court.

Ginsburg was born in 1933 to Jewish parents in the Bronx. During her childhood she excelled in academics at James Madison High School where she first fell in love with courtroom law. She later attended Cornell University where she graduated as the top female in her class. It was at Cornell, where she met her husband, Martin Ginsburg, marrying him at 21.

Together they attended Harvard Law where Ruth was one of the nine female students in her class. During their 3rd year, Martin developed testicular cancer, which prompted Ruth to take notes for her husband, and help him study to ensure he graduated on time, all while simultaneously caring for their 3 year old daughter.

Martin eventually recovered and received a job offer in New York, causing RBG to transfer to Columbia Law School, notably graduating at the top of her class (again). With a fresh law degree, she struggled to find work at any New York firms. She eventually became a professor at Rutgers University teaching civil procedure at a salary less than her male colleagues. She meanwhile helped establish the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, aimed specifically at women’s rights.

After receiving a job offer at Columbia, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). As director she won five out of the six gender rights cases she brought to the Supreme Court. She was known as the Thurgood Marshall of the Women’s Rights Movement, advocating for the complete extension of the Equal Protections Clause of the 14th Amendment to women.

“When I’m sometimes asked ‘When will there be enough (women on the Supreme Court)?’ and my answer is: ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.””

— Ruth Bader Ginsburg

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter nominated Ruth to the US Court of Appeals, and she was approved by the Senate. She served until her 1993 election to the Supreme Court. With the retirement of Justice Bryon White in the Supreme Court left a seat vacate, President Bill Clinton had a choice to make. On June 13th, 1993 at 11:33 am, Ruth received a call from the president asking her to take White’s seat. On June 22nd, the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg was made official. Her nomination was approved with a landslide 96 to 3 vote in the Senate. She was the second woman and first Jewish person to be elected.

One of her first cases included United States v. Virginia that inevitably struck down the male-only admission to the Virginia Military Institution by once again citing the 14th Amendment.

When asked about her views on abortion she responded, “[t]he basic thing is that the government has no business making that choice for a woman.”

Ginsburg served on the Supreme Court until her death, even while struggling with a colon cancer diagnosis and a pancreatic diagnosis in 2009. Unfortunately, her husband was also battling cancer, succumbing to his illness in 2010. She described her husband as “the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.” The couple’s former alma mater, Harvard, awarded Ginsburg an honorary degree for her civil service, and in 2015 Time Magazine listed her as one of the top most influential people.

Despite her old age, she resonated with young people for her progressive views. In 2018, two movies were released about her, one a biopic detailing her life (RBG), and the other following young Ginsburg during her first years as a lawyer fighting for equal rights for both men and women (On the Basis of Sex).

RBG died surrounded by her family. When the news broke of her death, thousands of people gathered outside the Supreme Court building to pay tribute to her. She will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to her husband. While her death produced shock waves across the country, especially during an election year, her life and legacy will be remembered thoroughly not only as a Supreme Court Justice but as a defender of equal rights for all.

“We are at last beginning to relegate to the history books the idea of the token woman.”