On 18th September, Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87. To us in the UK, it might seem odd that people in the U.S. are so distraught over the death of a Supreme Court Judge, who we may see as just another political figure. But Ginsburg was different – she was an icon of true justice and human rights for all, and an emblem of the triumph of determination in the face of inequality.
Ginsburg was born Joan Ruth Bader to a low-income, working-class Jewish family living in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. She was inspired by her mother, who, instead of attending university, worked in a garment factory in order to fund her brother’s college education. Her mother encouraged her to pursue education in a way she never could, but sadly she died of cancer a day before Ruth’s high school graduation.
Her mother’s legacy spurred Ginsburg on to get a first in her Bachelor’s degree before enrolling at Harvard University to complete a law degree, meanwhile juggling life as a mother to her first child. She was one of only eight women in her 500-strong cohort, but she excelled, and went on to become the first female member of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. She made sure to stand by her own doctrine: ‘Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception’.
During her studies, her husband Martin contracted testicular cancer, but instead of dropping out to care for him, she attended his law classes as well as her own to take notes for the both of them. Because of her effort, he was later able to graduate from law school as well. Their 56-year-long relationship is often hailed as the exemplar of love on equal terms (he famously used to do most of the cooking), with Ruth herself saying that he was ‘the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain’.
Ginsburg graduated with a first-class law degree in 1959, but she didn’t receive a single job offer afterwards despite her outstanding academic record. Eventually she gained the opportunities she deserved, and while working as a law professor in the 1970s, she also served as the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union to try and undermine the gender discrimination she faced. In this role, she won five landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court aiming to make laws gender-blind.
In 1980, President Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, before she was promoted by President Bill Clinton to become the Justice of the Supreme Court in 1993. The position is one held for life, thus why she was still in the job at her death. Clinton is said to have selected her because he thought she would be able to deal with the conservative members of the Court, being progressive herself.
During her tenure, she was known for standing by gender equality, workers’ rights and the separation of church and state. In 1999, she won the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award for her contributions to gender equality and civil rights. She overcame five run-ins with cancer to persevere with her work, only ever missing oral arguments in Court twice, even though she was undergoing chemotherapy.
Despite the required impartiality in her job, Ginsburg notably opposed Trump’s election in 2016, calling him a ‘faker’. When he visited Ginsburg’s casket at the Supreme Court last week, he was met with heckles from a Democratic crowd, with calls of ‘Vote Him Out!’. This may have contributed to the President’s defiance of her dying wish that she only be replaced after the U.S. general election in November – evidently, she was hoping Joe Biden would be able to pick a favourable candidate if he was elected.
Nevertheless, Trump has already nominated his pick for the job – Amy Coney Barrett, 48, is a strict Catholic pro-lifer with very conservative views on topics such as gun rights and immigration. She has recently been tied with religious organisation, People of Praise, which hails men as the divinely ordained ‘head’ of both family and faith, and asserts that women should submit to their husbands. There are fears that if she is elected, the Court will adopt an ‘America First’ ideology – she could end up promoting American isolationism, which may impact immigration, climate change policy and international conflicts. Hopefully, Ginsburg’s tireless work for equality isn’t undone by a woman with such backward views.
Despite her small stature – she was only five feet tall – Ruth Bader Ginsburg left a towering legacy in America’s justice system. By the end of her career, she had become a cult figure – “the Notorious RBG” – an embodiment of liberalism and political progression against stereotypical American conservatism, inspiring advocates of democratism and equality of all ages.
Her words offer a reminder to us all, not just Americans, of our duty as citizens of the world: ‘Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you’.