RUTH BADER GINSBURG
HERO AND ROLE MODEL FOR THE WORLD
By Dr. Catherine Tinker, professor of international law, lawyer in New York City
An icon of pop culture in her 80s, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had an indelible impact on American law and jurisprudence throughout her career. Featured on the popular TV show Saturday Night Live in a recurring sketch, an actress in Ginsburg’s trademark white lace collar over her black judicial robe portrayed her sharp comments, even occasional break-dance moves. Images of “RBG” are everywhere, on T-shirts, social media, even key chains. [See photo] Celebrities Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez sought her pre-marital advice, which she delighted in recounting, with her own mother-in-law’s advice on marriage: “Sometimes it helps to be a little deaf.”
In 1993, she became the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court, joining Sandra Day O’Connor. During her 27-year service as a Justice of the Supreme Court, several other women joined the bench. [See photo of group portrait from the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC].
In the last few years of her life, Ruth Bader Ginsburg took to the talk circuit, appearing on media interview shows and stages across the U.S. to explain her judicial philosophy, analysis of future challenges facing the country, and funny anecdotes about family and famous people she had known over decades, sometimes at her own expense. The crowds loved her.
I personally was in her audience at my alma mater, New York University Law School, when she was interviewed by Kenji Yoshino, professor of Constitutional Law, in 2018. In person, she was remarkably small and dainty, and carried a cloth tote bag like so many New Yorkers, even on stage, reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth’s ubiquitous handbag. Does either woman really have to carry keys or a credit card with her everywhere?
My other brush with Ruth Bader Ginsburg was at the New York City Bar Association, where I see her oil portrait every time I go to meetings. [See photo of oil portrait at the NYC Bar Association] She was active in the legal life of the city for many decades, and an annual event named after her at our bar association, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law, honors women judges, diplomats, journalists, and law professors.
How did her career begin? Ruth and Martin Ginsburg entered Harvard University together as law students, where she was top of her class, one of only a few women. Ruth finished law school at Columbia University in 1959, again at the top of her class, when the family moved to New York for Martin’s first legal job. The couple continued to share family responsibilities for their two children. Years later they moved to Washington for her job.
On her first law school teaching job, she had to fight for equal pay by filing a complaint under the then-new Equal Pay Act of 1963 (a law which still has not achieved its aims for most women in America today). In 1972, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the first female tenured professor of law at Columbia University since its founding in 1754. She taught courses on women’s rights and authored the first law school case book on sex discrimination.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was also a litigator with the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project. The first of six cases she argued at the U.S. Supreme Court was Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973), arguing against sex discrimination in employment benefits in the military. Her client was a man married to a woman in the military who was denied spousal benefits available to women married to men in the military.
Ginsburg won this test case under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited racial discrimination, a law extended to education in 1972 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.
This gender-neutral victory created a tsunami of opportunities for women as faculty members, graduate and law students at universities across the United States by the mid-1970s. I benefited directly from Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fearless defense of gender equality when I was admitted to George Washington University in the nation’s capital in 1974: the first law school class that was 20% female, rather than 3%. Nearly 50 years later, over 50% of law students and many law faculty and deans in the US are women.
Colleagues at the Supreme Court often praised Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s intelligence, hard work and ethics in carrying out her responsibilities, and her ability to work together with other justices whose views were different from her own. Notable was her close friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia, despite the wide divide between their beliefs on interpretation and application of Federal law and the U.S. Constitution. There have been many stories about the friendship she and Scalia shared through their love of opera.
Her last public interview was with respected American journalist Bill Moyers some months before her death of cancer on September 18, 2020 at age 87. She concluded that her faith for the future was in young people and their “spirit that wants to combat injustice.” It is what she stood for her entire life.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy lives on.