Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a doyenne of the court room. But she’s also a hero for gender equality and her rise to the top is an inspiring story you need to know…
While it’s true that not all heroes wear capes, in the case of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she certainly does.
Justice Ginsburg, better known as the ‘Notorious RBG’ across the pond, has become a rising global star, holding one of the most coveted legal positions in the US.
Having started her career in the early 1960s (at a time when many universities and businesses were either not admitting women, or had just started to), she’s faced many challenges throughout her life - including three separate cancer diagnoses.
Tirelessly committed to gender equality and endeavouring to fight discrimination in the high courts, it’s no wonder then that she’s garnered so much well-deserved social media fandom (even becoming a meme).
This formidable woman has spent decades making waves stateside and is about to be much better known here, with the release of On The Basis of Sex, which depicts the origins of this real life superhero, in cinemas February 22.
The living definition of a fighter, always using her experiences to push for a better and more equal world, here’s what you need to know about her:
1. The independence instilled in her is something we can all learn from
Many of us look up to our mums, but Celia Bader was an inspiration to her daughter - the two of them had regular weekly trips to the local library, reading constantly.
As a result, education and a dedication to learning are themes that run constant throughout Justice Ginsburg’s life, making her the fierce legal force she is today despite losing her mother the day before she graduated from high school.
Celia instilled in her daughter the importance of being independent at a time when that idea was pretty revolutionary - marriage was hailed as the most important focus.
After graduation she went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, then went on to Harvard Law school before transferring to Columbia, where she graduated tied first in her class.
She was in the minority at the time, being one of only nine women at Harvard (the class had more than 500 students overall and had only just started admitting women). Then she was one of twelve women at Columbia, with a class packed with almost 300 students.
Despite her huge academic achievements and raising a child while in law school, her life after education was tough. No law firms would hire her because of her gender and the fact that she was now a mother.
In the face of this discrimination she saw that holding onto her mother’s values were more important than ever.
2. She takes inspiration from others
After law school, Justice Ginsburg began working on a book about the legal system in Sweden and it opened her eyes to a different way of working.
While she couldn’t get hired at home in the US because of her gender, she saw women thriving within the legal field in Sweden.
She told the New York Times that she went to a proceeding where she witnessed that “the presiding judge was eight months pregnant”.
When Justice Ginsburg returned (having picked up the Swedish language along the way), she realised that there was so much to be done at home and set about working on change.
3. She’s continuously been a committed crusader for equality
Unable to become a lawyer straight out of university, despite being recommended for a job with a Supreme Court justice in the 60s by one of her professors at Harvard – a recommendation that was swiftly rejected on the basis that the judge wasn’t ready to hire a woman - she was able to embark on a career in academia at Rutgers University. Here, she began teaching a course on sex discrimination.
At the time women couldn’t even get a credit card without their husband’s signature (until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act Of 1974).
This theme of workplace discrimination was something she worried about personally too.
When she joined the university, she found out that she was being paid less than her male colleagues purely because she had a husband with a well-paid job.
She then began campaigning with the other female staff for equal pay while at the same time hiding her second pregnancy for fear of losing her position (having been demoted during her first pregnancy with a different employer).
In the early 70s, she took her interest a step further and started volunteering at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project.
This initiative focused on landmark cases around gender discrimination - including discrimination against men and their rights as fathers to highlight gender inequality. She won five of the six cases that she took to the Supreme Court.
But before her big debut in the Supreme court, she cut her teeth on a tax case: Moritz vs. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, which is explored in depth in the new film.
During this 1972 case, Ruth argued against a specific tax code which denied unmarried Mr Moritz the right to deduct expenses for the care of his ailing mother.
Her main argument was built on the notion that the law discriminated based on his gender and was therefore unconstitutional.
In proving that both men and women could be caregivers and winning a tax refund for her client, the case built the foundation for her career as she continues to this day to fight for equality.
4. She knows how to cultivate a kick-ass support system
Fact: no woman is an island, and one of the most heart-warming parts of RGB’s life story is the amazing support network around her.
While her husband Martin David Ginsburg died in 2010, she always speaks warmly about the great partnership they had after meeting during a blind date while at Cornell.
Martin affectionately known as ‘Marty’ always encouraged her career and never forced her into any kind of stereotype, in fact he was the one who was a pro in the kitchen making dinner for the family (and later writing a cookbook called Chef Supreme) while Justice Ginsburg was changing the US legal system.
Throughout their marriage: he supported her, and she him (when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer at law school she helped to type up his notes and attended all of his lectures, alongside her own studies).
In an interview with Yale Law School she said: “I had the great good fortune to marry a man who thought my work was as important as his.”
5. She’s creating an amazing legacy
After celebrating huge wins in the 70s, alongside the emerging women’s movement, Justice Ginsburg spent the 1980s working as a judge of the US Court of Appeals.
In the 1990s she was nominated by Bill Clinton and took her oath to office in the Supreme Court.
She’s been in the role for over 25 years, was the second ever woman to be appointed and also the first Jewish woman to take up the position.
Thanks to the overt discrimination she faced in her early career, she remains outspoken and vocal about the need for equality today, including publicly objecting to Trump and the threat he poses to women’s rights.
Currently the oldest Justice on the bench at 85, she has no plans to give up her seat anytime soon, saying she’d love to stay in the role until she turns 90. And we’re supremely grateful for her.
On The Basis Of Sex is in cinemas on February 22 2019.