A titan of gender equality, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg perhaps did more than any other single figure to advance women’s rights and reverse sex discrimination. From launching the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, in the early 1970s, to crafting critical decisions on the U.S. Supreme Court, from 1993 to her death, she was one of the most influential voices in forming public opinion. And her legal victories ensured that legislatures would give women equal protection with men under the law.
“Many admirers of her work say she is to the women’s movement what former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was to the movement for African Americans,” President Bill Clinton said in nominating her to the court in 1993.
Ginsburg, the eldest Supreme Court justice and the leader of its liberal wing, died at her home in Washington of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer at age 87, the Supreme Court announced in a statement. In her long tenure on the high court, she became what the New York Times called “a judicial rock star,” for her feisty dissents and her refusal to step down for age or health, despite five bouts of cancer over more than two decades and a fall that broke three ribs. She vowed to stay on the court until age 90.
“The work is really what saved me,” she told NPR’s Nina Totenberg in 2019. “There was a senator — I think it was after my pancreatic cancer — who announced with great glee that I was going to be dead within six months. That senator, whose name I have forgotten [Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican], is now himself dead, and I am very much alive.”
"Our country has lost a trailblazer, a cultural icon and an architect for a more equitable, inclusive society — especially for women," AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins said in a statement. "Not only was Justice Ginsburg the oldest member of the current U.S. Supreme Court, she defined what it means to live with purpose at every age. She ignored calls to retire for more than 20 years and, on her own terms, continued to contribute to the court and well-being of the American people."
Dubbed the Notorious RBG, in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the rapper Notorious B.I.G., Ginsburg inspired an award-winning documentary, RBG, and a feature film, On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones, as well as an action figure, a coloring book and myriad T-shirt designs. Women particularly loved her and noticed when she wore a particular kind of collar, a jabot, to signify a dissent. Ginsburg seemed to enjoy her pop culture status as much as she poked fun at it.
“One change in my life is now I’m recognized,” she said in 2018. “And every once in a while, when someone comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, Justice Ginsburg, you are my idol,’ I say, ‘Um, so many people have told me that I look just like her.’ ”
Born Joan Ruth Bader in Brooklyn, New York, on March 15, 1933, the justice suffered one of her most painful examples of sex discrimination when her mother died just as she was graduating high school — Ruth was prohibited from taking part in the shiva minyan, or prayer service for mourners, which Orthodox Judaism reserves for males over the age of 13.
As a 17-year-old attending Cornell University, she met fellow student Martin Ginsburg, and the two married after graduation. A year after giving birth to their first child, Jane (son James was born 10 years later), she enrolled in Harvard Law School. As one of only nine women in a class of some 500 men, she remembered the dean’s inviting the female students to dinner at his home and asking, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” She later famously said, “Feminism [is the] notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents and not be held back by artificial barriers — man-made barriers, certainly not heaven-sent.”
Ginsburg earned her law degree at Columbia University in 1959, tying for first in her class, and as one of fewer than 20 female law professors in the country, she taught at Rutgers Law School, after no law firm would hire her — based on her gender. After discovering that her male colleagues at Rutgers were paid more, she joined an equal-pay campaign, the issue becoming one of the hallmarks of her career, along with reproductive control. In 1970 she cofounded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the nation’s first law journal of its kind. Later, while teaching at Columbia (as the first woman to be hired with tenure at the law school) and working as general counsel for the ACLU, she cowrote a groundbreaking law-school casebook on discrimination based on gender.
That led President Jimmy Carter to nominate her in 1980 for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where she was known as a moderate, often agreeing with conservatives such as Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, the latter of whom also went on to the Supreme Court. With Scalia, she forged a nearly legendary friendship that lasted until his death, in 2016. The two attended the opera together and, along with their spouses (Martin, a tax attorney, died in 2010), dined with each other on New Year’s Eve. Despite their opposing viewpoints, Scalia conceded that she was his “best buddy” on the bench. She echoed that warmth with her nickname for him, “Nino.”
“Call us the odd couple,” Scalia said in 2015 at a George Washington University event, where he teased Ginsburg onstage about a minor flap that arose after they were pictured together riding an elephant in India, in 1994. “Her feminist friends” took umbrage, he said, that “she rode behind me.” Ginsburg got the best of him, quickly adding, to the roar of both the audience and Scalia, that the elephant driver had placed them that way as “a matter of distribution of weight.”
Ginsburg believed in writing dissents for “a future age.” At the same time, she argued that cultural change, such as same-sex marriage, doesn’t come from the court, but, rather, “social movements cause change, and the court catches up,” according to Irin Carmon, coauthor of the book Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She thought her role in the ’70s, Carmon says, was to help the court do just that.
If Ginsburg was ambivalent about gender-based affirmative action, personally always wanting to be considered on the basis of merit and not based on her sex, she nonetheless embraced the #MeToo movement of accountability for sexual assault and harassment. “My hope,” she said, “is not just that it is here to stay but that it is as effective for the woman who works as a maid in a hotel as it is for Hollywood stars.”
To the end, Ginsburg believed in always using whatever talent one has to work to the best of one’s ability, and, with the help of two biographers, wrote a book, My Own Words, in 2016, at age 83.
“As long as one lives,” she insisted, “one can learn.”