Remembering the Notorious R.B.GBy Joshua Pawlak | Published 09/28/2020
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959, it seemed that her pursuit of a law career would be doomed before it even started. Despite graduating first in her class, contributing to two major law reviews (Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review), and obtaining strong recommendations from her professors (all while mothering a young child and caring for her cancer-afflicted husband), she was rejected from multiple clerkship positions on the basis of her gender. A US District Court judge eventually agreed to hire her, but not until after one of Ginsburg’s former professors threatened to stop recommending students if she was not offered the position.
Her early years as a legal scholar proved to be essential to shaping her opinions on the gender equality she fought for in the years to come. At Lund University in Sweden, where she took a temporary position in 1962, she saw that women there comprised close to a quarter of law students. Having graduated in a 500-student class with just nine women, she had learned to accept the second-class position women were frequently relegated to: “I guess I knew inequality existed, but it was just part of the scenery. It was the way things were. You just had to cope with it”, she said during an interview in her later years. Her time in Sweden showed her that it was possible to work towards equality: “I saw what was wrong and what needed to change in the U.S.A.”
Despite the promise she saw outside of the U.S, she continued to face adversity upon her return, at many times in the form of blatant sexism. She was informed, when she was hired as a professor at Rutgers Law School in 1963, that she would be paid less than her male colleagues, on the grounds that her husband already had a stable and well-paying job. When she took a professorship at Columbia Law School in 1972, she was not only the first woman to receive a tenured position at the school, but also the first woman ever to teach at the prestigious institution.
As a co-founder and the director of the Women’s Rights Project within the American Civil Liberties Union, Ginsburg truly began the career that distinguished her as a masterful lawyer and legal scholar. The Project would argue hundreds of gender discrimination cases over the next several years, with Ginsburg herself arguing six cases before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976. She chose her plaintiffs extremely carefully and strategically, initially going after smaller discriminatory statues and building on each success, and using male plaintiffs in multiple cases to demonstrate the harm gender discrimination causes at an institutional level. She would go on to win five of these cases, establishing precedents for legal review of gender discrimination cases and significantly advancing women’s rights under the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protections clause.
In her years on the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg championed the equality she fought for in her earlier years. In her time on the bench, the Supreme Court extended the discrimination protections provided in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, rejected attempts to block same-sex marriage, and ruled in favor of dozens of sex-discrimination cases. She became one of the most recognizable names and faces in politics, and has been portrayed in film, opera, and SNL skits. When asked when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court, she famously replied, “when there are nine”.
The woman who became the ‘Notorious R.B.G’ for her often-fiery dissents will be remembered as a dedicated, brilliant, and deeply passionate champion of women’s rights. Her death leaves a gaping hole in American politics and pop culture alike, one which may never be completely filled. Though the odds were stacked against her, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a woman who faced and conquered every roadblock in her life. In the coming weeks, a conflict over her Supreme Court seat seems inevitable, but we must not let it distract us from her legacy: although she will be sorely missed, her fight for equality has not yet been won; it is our duty to continue the battle she leaves behind.