Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also known as Kiki, Bubbie, and the Notorious RBG, remains a global icon, cherished for her unwavering support for social justice. Sworn in on August 10th, 1993, Ginsburg became the 107th Supreme Court Justice of the United States, and the second woman to sit on the venerated bench, though her impact and passion for change stretches far beyond her appointment to the United States’ most powerful court. Throughout her tenure as a professor and founder of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, she fought fiercely for women and other disenfranchised communities. Ginsburg brought a new perspective to lawmaking, which had predominantly been painted through the lenses of white, affluent, cisgender, heterosexual men. She illustrated not only the value of fair and equitable laws for all citizens, but also the importance of leadership that adequately reflects the communities it serves. In her words, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” May we honor Ginsburg’s legacy by recognizing not only the countless liberties she awarded us, but also, by commemorating the admirable person she was in all walks of life. Below you will find few of the many pieces of wisdom she shared with me on life and liberty.
If the path is blocked or doesn’t take you where you wish to go, forge a new one.
Ginsburg was by all accounts a trailblazer. The thoughts she held surrounding women’s place in society were largely influenced by her mother, lifelong partner, and the time she time she spent abroad in Sweden studying civil procedure. Her ideas were, at the time, seemingly quite radical in the United States. Many things that we take for granted today, like women administering estates or men acting as caretakers, were truly quite foreign concepts not so many years ago. Thanks to Ginsburg’s advocacy in Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, which awarded male caretakers tax breaks, and Reed v. Reed, which ruled that an Idaho probate code preferring men to women as administrators of an estate was violative of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, these basic freedoms are widely entrenched in our daily understanding of society today. Ginsburg’s paramount role in both of these cases, amongst many others, was irrefutably monumental in laying the groundwork for the unconstitutionality of discrimination on the basis of sex.
Even before her years on the court, Ginsburg was one of nine women in her Harvard Law class of 552 students. Harvard’s then-dean probed each of the women as to why they justified taking a place in the law school that could have gone to a man. After transferring to Columbia Law School, where she was among the first women to serve on the notorious Law Review, Ginsburg graduated at the top of her class. All of these feats appeared, at least initially, to be of no avail. Ginsburg faced overt discrimination as she began interviewing at law firms across New York City, recalling that it was not unusual for “ladies” to be refused interviews or asked about their “motherly duties.” As Ginsburg recalled, “I had three strikes against me, one I was Jewish, two I was a woman, but the killer was I was the mother of a four-year-old child.” Nonetheless, RBG prevailed, eventually earning a seat on the highest court in the land, paving her own unique and impactful path along the way.
Think before you speak, and don’t always listen.
One of the most prized pieces of advice RBG recalls, was provided by her mother-in-law on Ruth and Marty’s wedding day. She told Ginsburg, “In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” Ginsburg often proudly acclaimed, “I have followed that advice assiduously, and not only at home through 56 years of a marital partnership nonpareil. I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.” RBG was notorious for her extended pauses, which she religiously employed to gather her thoughts prior to speaking. Through these small changes in daily interaction, she was able to foster a collegiate and compassionate environment, both inside and outside of the Court.
While we still have a way to go, it’s important to recognize how far we’ve come.
When asked about the progress achieved during her tenure, Ginsburg usually pointed to her mother, Celia. Celia’s wits and ambitions were undeniable, but unfortunately went unfulfilled. In many ways, witnessing firsthand the paradox of her mother’s potential contradicted with her job in a garment factory sparked an indelible light in Ruth. She spent the rest of her life fighting so that talented women like her mother would no longer be held back on the basis of their sex. When she spoke of progress, Ginsburg often pointed to her beloved mother, noting that one generation held the difference between a factory worker and a supreme court justice. RBG once famously said, “I pray that I may be all that (my mother) would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons.”
Ginsburg certainly conceded that we still have much to achieve as a society, notably voicing that there will not be enough women on the court until there are nine. But she also demonstrated the value in appreciating the gains we have achieved. Ginsburg once said, “Yes, there are miles in front, but what a distance we have traveled from the day President Thomas Jefferson told his Secretary of State: ‘The appointment of women to [public] office is an innovation for which the public is not prepared.’ ‘Nor,’ Jefferson added, ‘am I.’” On another occasion, RBG spoke about our Constitution, and its incredible adaptation throughout time. She recounted, “If I asked you the question: Who counted among ‘We the People’ when our Constitution was new? Well, not very many people. Certainly, I wouldn’t count. Certainly not people who were held in human bondage. And not even most men, because you had to be a property owner as well. So think of what our nation and our Constitution have become over, now, well more than two centuries. The idea of ‘We the People’ has become more and more embracive. People who were once left out, people who were once slaves, women, Native Americans, did not count in the beginning. Inclusiveness has come about as a result of constitutional amendments… The word equal becomes a part of the Constitution in the Fourteenth Amendment. So I see as the genius of our Constitution and of our society – how much more embracive we have come than we were at the start.”
Progress necessitates patience.
One ruling in particular drew a great deal of criticism from feminist groups: Roe v. Wade. Roe v. Wade articulated that an attempt to control a woman’s reproductive rights violated the Due Process Clause of the Constitution, outlining a citizen’s right to privacy. Ginsburg, however, insisted that the case had been decided much too hastily and broadly, and the argument would have held more constitutional strength had it ruled that restrictions to abortion instead violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, as it limits a woman’s ability to define their own life choices, imposing burdens that are not imposed on men. RBG criticized the Roe ruling for its lack of caution, as the justices had fashioned a sweeping set of regulations for the entire country as opposed to striking down the Texas abortion ban at issue in the case, which allowed exceptions only for lifesaving medical procedures. She once said, “Suppose the Court had stopped there, rightly declaring unconstitutional the most extreme brand of law in the nation, and had not gone on, as the Court did in Roe, to fashion a regime blanketing the subject, a set of rules that displaced virtually every state law then in force. A less encompassing Roe, one that merely struck down the extreme Texas law and went no further on that day… might have served to reduce rather than to fuel controversy.” Through this decision, Ginsburg taught us a monumental lesson: lasting change will take time. Today, we live in a world where nearly everything is at our fingertips. The average Google search, for example, takes a whopping .5 seconds, returning with it millions of results. However, much to our frustration, lasting change will not unfold in our world immediately, rather, it will be, and should be, gradual, as that is the only way such progress will prove durable and longstanding.
Women are stronger together.
During a time in which women scarcely held leadership positions, RBG cherished the few female colleagues she did have. One person in particular, Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman elected to the supreme court, she recalled as “the most helpful big sister anyone could have.” While Justice O’Connor dissented from Ginsburg’s first majority opinion, she passed Ginsburg a note reading, “This is your first opinion for the Court. It is a fine one. I look forward to many more.” The two justices often found each other on opposing sides of arguments, however, particularly when it came to cases involving sex discrimination, they tended to align. Ginsburg was a vehement advocate for diversity in the Court, frequently repeating the admonition that “generalizations about the way women or men are… cannot guide me reliably in making decisions about particular individuals.” Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg were walking evidence that female judges did not think the same way, however, in aggregate, a diverse federal bench was richer “in appreciation of what is at stake and the impact of its judgments if all of its members are not cast from the same mold.” RBG demonstrated a strong affection for O’Connor not only as a mentor and support system, but also as someone who possessed a “distinctive medley of views influenced by differences in biology, cultural impact, and life experience.” Justice O’Connor aided Justice Ginsburg in bringing attention to their male colleagues’ “blind spots. “When Sandra left,” RBG recalled, “[the Court], was a very lonely place to be.”
Equality is only possible when women and men are truly equal.
Ginsburg’s views of equality were truly democratic and egalitarian; she fought for the eradication of sex-based discrimination on behalf of men and women alike. While many see RBG’s employment of male plaintiffs as a strategy to persuade the Court that laws were discriminatory on the basis of sex, which had obvious implications for the status of women, it’s important to note that she truly did believe in an all-encompassing notion of equity between the sexes. She once said in an interview, “I think that men and women, shoulder to shoulder, will work together to make this a better world. Just as I don’t think that men are the superior sex, neither do I think women are. I think it’s great that we’re beginning to use the talent of all of the people in all walks of life, and that we no longer have the closed doors that we once had.” When asked why she had agreed to a flexible schedule for one of her law clerks, David Post, Ginsburg replied that he was caring for his two small children during the day, so that his wife could sustain a demanding job as an economist. “This is my dream of the way the world should be. When fathers take equal responsibility for the care of their children, that’s when women will be truly liberated,” she said.
Choose a true life partner.
The Ginsburgs’ relationship was nothing short of remarkable. Ruth and Marty Ginsburg were partners in every sense of the word. Ruth referred to Marty as her “best friend and biggest supporter.” She recalled her days at Cornell, where Marty and Ruth first met, “Marty was an extraordinary person. Of all the boys I had dated, he was the only one who really cared that I had a brain. And he was always, well, making me feel that I was better than I thought I was.” Marty was known for wearing several hats throughout their marriage: the chef supreme of the Ginsburg family kitchen, the first reader and critic of Ginsburg’s lectures, speeches and briefs, a father to Jane and James Ginsburg, and an unwavering partner through all walks of life.
As RBG recalled, “... And I betray no secret in reporting that, without him, I would not have gained a seat on the Supreme Court. Ron Klain, then associate White House counsel, said of my 1993 nomination: ‘I would say definitely and for the record, though Ruth Bader Ginsburg should have been picked for the Supreme Court anyway, she would not have been picked for the Supreme Court if her husband had not done everything he did to make it happen.’ That ‘everything’ included gaining the unqualified support of my home state senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and enlisting the aid of many members of the legal academy and practicing bar familiar with work I had done.” During her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, RBG said, “I have had the great good fortune to share life with a partner truly extraordinary for his generation, a man who believed at age 18 when we met, and who believes today, that a woman’s work, whether at home or on the job, is as important as a man’s.” No one relished more in RBG’s accomplishments than Marty, often setting aside his own dreams to help Ruth achieve hers. Their marriage aptly demonstrated one of equals, as they both supported one another through thick and thin, saw the other’s success as their own, and loved one another deeply. Marty wrote one final letter to Ruth in 2010, which read, “You are the only person I have loved in my life.”
While these above anecdotes are surely only pieces of the copious volumes of inspiration Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shared with me, they are some of the facets of her life that I hold near and dear to my heart and attempt to emulate on a daily basis. Everyday, Ginsburg stood behind what she believed, even when she was the very unpopular voice in the room. She brought her full self to the Court every day, fighting passionately for equality, while also treating her colleagues like family. For all that she achieved in her lifetime, RBG was incredibly humble, demonstrating that her work was for neither fame nor glory, but instead, for the change that she wished to see in the world. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg set a strong precedent for all of us, and we owe it to her as well as the other women who have courageously paved the path before us, to uphold this very noble fight.