Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the first Jewish woman (and only the second woman) appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born as Joan Ruth Bader in 1933 to Nathan Bader and Celia Amster Bader. She grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where her Russian immigrant father worked as a furrier. Her older sister, Marilyn, died when Ruth was six years old, leaving her as an only child. Ruth’s Jewish identity was shaped by World War II and the Holocaust. “World War II raged on during my grade school years,” said Ginsburg. “Jews fortunate enough to be in the United States during those years could hardly avoid identifying themselves with the cause of the Jewish people.” During her senior year of high school, Ruth’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. She died at age 47, one day before Ruth’s high school graduation.
Ruth received a New York State scholarship to attend Cornell University, where she had the reputation of being beautiful, popular, and exceptionally smart, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. She met Martin D. Ginsburg, another pre-law student, and they married in 1954, just after Ruth’s graduation. Martin, one year older than Ruth, had completed his first year at Harvard law school, but was drafted into the army.
While living in Lawton, Oklahoma for the next two years, Ginsburg took a job with the Social Security Office. But when she disclosed that she was pregnant, her supervisor arbitrarily decided that she could not travel to a training session required for her job and demoted her three levels in pay. In 1955, she gave birth to her daughter, Jane, now a professor of law at Columbia Law School and a leading authority on copyright and trademark law.
In 1956-58, both Ginsburgs attended Harvard Law School. Ruth was one of only 9 women in a first year class of over 500 students. At a dinner hosted by the dean in honor of the women students, she was aghast when the dean asked each woman to explain why she was attending law school when she was occupying a student slot that could have been filled by a man! This incident just made her even more determined to excel in law school, earning her the nickname “Ruthless Ruthie.” Despite the extra demands of motherhood, she was appointed to the prestigious Harvard Law Review at the end of her first year.
During her second year at Harvard, Martin Ginsburg was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that few survive. He underwent extensive surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy. Ruth Ginsburg attended her husband’s classes, took notes for him and typed his papers, also caring for their preschool daughter. She did all of these things while continuing to excel in her own law studies and working on the Harvard Law Review.
When her husband graduated and obtained a job in a New York law firm, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School so their family could remain together. There she also was named to the law review and tied for first place in her graduating class of 1959.
But her success as a star pupil in law school did not help her obtain a job in the law profession. Not a single law firm in the entire city of New York offered her a position. “In the fifties,” Ginsburg said, “traditional law firms just were beginning to turn around on hiring Jews. But to be a woman, a Jew, and a mother to boot, that combination was too much.” Based on her outstanding scholastic record, professors at Harvard Law School proposed her as a Supreme Court law clerk. However, Justice Felix Frankfurter (also Jewish) responded that he was not yet prepared to hire a woman.
Her first job was a clerkship with Judge Edmund L. Palmieri of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, one of the few federal judges who hired women law clerks. At the completion of her clerkship, Ginsburg worked on the Columbia Project on International Civil Procedure, learning Swedish in order to help rewrite and translate the Swedish Judicial Procedure Code. In 1963, she accepted a position at Rutgers, one of the few law schools willing to appoint women faculty members. While she was an untenured assistant professor of law at Rutgers Law School, she became pregnant with her second child and feared that her contract would be terminated. She hid her pregnancy during the spring semester, with the help of a larger size wardrobe borrowed from her mother-in-law! Her son, James, was born in the fall, just before classes resumed. She became a full professor at Rutgers in 1969, and, three years later, became the first tenured female professor at Columbia Law School.
While Ginsburg had not entered the law profession to be an advocate for women’s rights, her personal encounters with the obstacles faced by women attempting to combine career and family lead her to take an interest in cases dealing with sex discrimination. She realized that the second-class treatment she experienced in her career was part of a larger problem—social conditions that denied women choices and opportunities open to men. Previously, the Supreme Court had upheld legalization of sexual stereotyping under the rationale that women were in need special protection. The reality of such laws was to unfairly limit opportunities for women. In 1972, she became a founder and director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, through which she worked to demonstrate that sex-based classifications within the law discriminated between men and women in an unconstitutional manner. In the 1970s, Ginsburg won 5/6 women’s rights cases that she argued before the Supreme Court. The effect of these decisions was to change laws nationwide to reduce gender discrimination in hiring and prevent job termination because of pregnancy.
Ginsburg remained on the Columbia Law School faculty from 1972 to 1980. In 1980, she was appointed by President Carter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. On June 14, 1993, President Clinton appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying that he believed “she will be able to be a force for consensus-building on the Supreme Court.” At the announcement in the White House Rose Garden, Judge Ginsburg paid tribute to her mother when she said, “I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived to an age when women could aspire and achieve, and daughters are cherished as much as sons.” In the confirmation proceedings, she received the highest rating from the American Bar Association, and was approved by a Senate vote of ninety-six to three. “When I got out of law school and began to teach, women were only three percent of my students,” Ginsburg said. “I never thought of the possibility of being a judge.”
Justice Ginsburg credits the support of her husband and family for making it possible for her to reach the pinnacle of her profession. She describes her husband as her “best friend and biggest booster. A supportive husband who is willing to share duties and responsibilities is a must . . .,” she says, “for any woman who hopes to combine marriage and a career.” An entry in her daughter’s high school yearbook under “ambition” states: “to see my mother appointed to the Supreme Court.”
Justice Ginsburg has displayed independence in her rulings on the High Court, which were neither as liberal as expected nor as conservative as many liberals feared. She was respectful of precedent and reluctant to involve the court in political battles. She took a strong stand against mixing church and state, opposing the creation of a special school district to allow Hasidic Jews to run their own public school in Kiryas Joel, New York. In one of her most important written opinions in 1996, she ruled that state-funded Virginia Military Institute must open its doors to women.
In her spare time, Justice Ginsburg is an opera fan and likes reading mysteries, watching old movies, and enjoys horseback riding, water skiing, and golf. In 1994, she experienced the dream of many opera fans. Along with Justice Antonin Scalia, another opera lover, she donned a white-powdered wig and played an extra in the Washington Opera.
In an address to the American Jewish Committee after her Supreme Court appointment, Justice Ginsburg said, “I am a judge born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition. I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and the courage to remain constant in the service of that demand.”
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