Visible Women

How Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a feminist icon

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Moya Crockett
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A documentary and a feature film about ‘the notorious RBG’ are due to hit UK cinemas in the New Year. Here, we pay tribute to one of gender equality’s biggest legal champions 

There are many memorable moments in RBG, the forthcoming documentary about US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At one point, we see the birdlike 85-year-old judge lifting weights with her personal trainer, wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words ‘SUPER DIVA’. (When I first saw screenshots of this scene on Twitter, I assumed they’d been doctored.) 

Elsewhere, extracts from the judge’s speeches appear on the screen word by word, highlighting the precise and powerful nature of her arguments. Dreamy, crackling, blue-toned footage of a 20-something Ruth on holiday with Marty, the man who would become her husband of more than 50 years, is so poignant that it brings tears to my eyes.

But the most significant moment of RBG, for me, is when we see a picture of Bader Ginsburg at Harvard Law School in the late Fifties. The photo was taken on the college steps, and at first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking there are no women in it at all: just rows and rows of pale, bespectacled young men.

And then the camera zooms in to focus on the face of a young woman, standing right at the edge of the class. Next to the miles of men in suits, she looks almost laughably tiny and distinctly feminine, with immaculately-coiffed hair and a dark slash of lipstick. But her expression, above a girlish Peter Pan collar, is deadly serious. Her gaze cuts through you like a knife.

Unapologetically female, often outnumbered, and not here to mess around: if you were looking for a photo to sum up Bader Ginsburg, you could do worse than this one. Since her law career began in the early Sixties, the Brooklyn-born judge has built a reputation as one of the world’s brightest and fiercest legal minds, playing a crucial role in advancing gender equality in the US.

In recent years, she has also become a feminist icon, enjoying a level of fame and adoration that other judges could only dream of.

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Today, Bader Ginsburg is the oldest justice and an important liberal voice on the US Supreme Court, which has tilted significantly to the right since the election of Donald Trump. The president has successfully placed two ultra-conservative judges on the court since he took office (including Brett Kavanaugh, who was credibly accused of sexual assault by Dr Christine Blasey Ford), and could easily nominate more if any of the sitting justices retire or pass away.

As a result, many women are currently watching Bader Ginsburg’s health like anxious hawks, terrified at what it could mean for America should she leave the Supreme Court. When she was recently admitted to hospital, having fallen and broken three ribs, social media went into meltdown.

“Where is the nationwide prayer circle for Ruth Bader Ginsburg?” read one typical tweet. “Because I volunteer to lead one if it’s not already planned.”

Bader Ginsburg after receiving a medal from the American Law Institute in Washington DC, May 2018

RBG, which is due for release in the UK in early 2019, isn’t the only upcoming film dedicated to Bader Ginsburg’s story. The biopic On the Basis of Sex, which stars Felicity Jones as the judge as a young woman, will hit UK cinemas on 4 January. 

The film’s second trailer shows Bader Ginsburg at a glamorous dinner hosted by the dean of Harvard Law School, who graciously welcomes the new students to the university. Then he asks each of the women in the room to explain, one by one, “why they are occupying a space that could have gone to a man”.

It seems too outrageous to be true, but that encounter really took place. Bader Ginsburg was one of nine female students in a class of around 500 people at Harvard Law School, and the dean’s comment was just one of the many indignities she had to endure as a result of her gender as a young woman.

After her beloved mother died the day before her high school graduation, Bader Ginsburg was refused the right to attend the minyan, a traditional Jewish prayer service, because she was a woman. While working in an office aged 21, she was demoted for becoming pregnant with her first child. In 1960, she was recommended for a job with a Supreme Court justice by one of her professors at Harvard – but was swiftly rejected on the basis that the judge wasn’t ready to hire a woman.

Three years later, when she got her first position as a professor at Rutgers Law School, she was told she would be paid less than her male colleagues because she had a husband with a well-paid job. The list went on, and on, and on.

These experiences, combined with the fact that she had grown up Jewish and working-class during World War II, gave Bader Ginsburg a keen sense of justice. By the late Sixties, the second-wave feminist movement was in full swing in the US, but Bader Ginsburg was never one for protesting on the streets. Instead, she fought for gender equality using her razor-sharp intellect and formidable knowledge of the law.

In 1972, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which participated in over 300 gender discrimination cases within two years. By 1976, she had argued six landmark gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five. 

These included Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), which ruled that female members of the military were entitled to the same family benefits as men, and Duren v. Missouri (1979), which decided that jury duty should not be optional for women – as this suggested that women’s service was not as important as men’s.

Cleverly, Bader Ginsburg didn’t just fight for women’s rights in the courts, but also argued cases in which men were affected by sex-based discrimination. In 1973, she successfully fought for the right of fathers to receive state benefits if their wives passed away – something that had previously only been open to widowed mothers. 

By highlighting how both men and women were harmed by gender inequality, Bader Ginsburg opened many people’s eyes to the universal benefits of feminism.

Bader Ginsburg with Bill Clinton in 1993, as the president announced her as his nominee for the Supreme Court 

Bill Clinton appointed Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993, making her only the second woman (after Sandra Day O’Connor) to rise to that rank. During her confirmation hearing, she made crystal clear that she would continue to work for gender equality on the highest court in the land, stating explicitly that she supported abortion rights.

“It is essential to woman’s equality with man that she be the decisionmaker, that her choice be controlling,” she told senators, in her calm, clear voice. “If you impose restraints that impede her choice, you are disadvantaging her because of her sex.” She was confirmed by a vote of 96 to three. (For context, Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court in October was secured by a margin of just two votes.)

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The US Supreme Court has become gradually more conservative since Bader Ginsburg took her seat, and she now often finds herself as a dissenting voice arguing for the rights of women and ethnic minorities. She doesn’t relish this role: in RBG, she often speaks of the importance of finding common ground with people of different ideological stripes. But she sees expressing her opinion as an important exercise in democracy – and, of course, she’s used to being outnumbered by men.

Bader Ginsburg “was never an agitator in her disposition, but she did what she could using her own talents and expertise to help achieve a more just society for all,” Shana Knizhnik, one of the directors of RBG, has said.

“As she has seen the things she fought for threatened by the shifting political winds, she has spoken out… RBG teaches us that we can all do our part to help move society forward.”

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images