A Tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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Credit: Store Norske Leksikon

“If I had any talent in the world…I would be a great diva.” Those were the words of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who throughout her inspirational life became an icon, an activist, a women’s rights pioneer, and yes, even a diva. Her death on September 18th at the age of 87 due to metastatic pancreatic cancer complications shocked the nation and set off another wave of political turmoil, anger, and grief. But while the 5’1, soft-spoken, fierce woman may be gone, her legacy lives on, fueling women and generations of young activists to come.  

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born as Joan Ruth Bader on March 15, 1933 to Nathan and Celia Bader in a working class, low income neighborhood in Brooklyn. Her mother had, like most women at the time, married and started a family early and was forced to quit her education and get a low paying job as a garment worker. With her opportunities cut short, Celia supported and encouraged her daughter’s young ambitions as much as she could. Even while struggling with cancer, Celia took Ruth to the library every week to supply her with books. Ginsburg’s mother died the day before she graduated James Madison High School, when Ginsburg was just 15 years old. After her mother’s death, Ruth Bader Ginsburg worked even harder to succeed, claiming that her mother had once told her “to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.” Ginsburg took that word of advice and used it to propel herself to Cornell University where she graduated in 1954, then to Harvard Law School with her husband, Martin Ginsburg, where she was enrolled from 1956 to 1958. In 1959, she graduated from Columbia Law School tied for first in her class. But despite her impressive resume, Ginsburg struggled to find employment after school due to gender discrimination. For many law firms, messages that read “Men only” prevented her from even applying. Thus began her gender equality crusade. 

With hard work and a determination charged by male critics, Ruth Bader Ginsburg began to gain footing. During the 1970s, she was the director of the Women’s Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties, and in 1980, she was appointed to the US Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C. (HISTORY). In 1993, she was nominated as Supreme Court Justice by Bill Clinton and voted in by the Senate in a 96-3 vote where she served as the second female and first Jewish associate justice for the United States all the way up until her death. 

In the court, Ginsburg worked tirelessly to secure more rights for women. According to ACLU, she, along with the help of ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project Attorney Susan Deller Ross contributed to the passing of the Pregnancy Discrimmination Act which declares that this type of discrimmination is both categorized under sex discrimmination and unlawful. This act has prevented women from being fired or passed on for a job consideration because they are pregnant or plan to get pregnant. Ginsburg also led the “landmark” ruling, according to HISTORY, that state-funded schools had to admit women in the  United States v. Virginia case. 

And while financial independence for men and women seems like a no-brainer, it was Ginsburg’s work in 1974 that led to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act which allows women to apply for mortgages, credit cards, and bank accounts without the need for a male co-signer (Rodriguez, Global Citizen). And remember jury duty? Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the inclusion and participation of women a requirement because up until 1979, it had been optional due to the argument of several states that women did not have to attend due to “family and household obligations”, according to Global Citizen. “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made,” Ginsburg claimed in 2009. “It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”

But Ginsburg’s fight for gender equality wasn’t strictly limited to women’s rights. She also helped men achieve the equality they deserved. In 1968, she represented a man named Charles Mortiz in the case Mortiz v Commissioner of Internal Revenue, her first gender discrimination case argued in court, according to the Smithsonian Magazine. Mortiz was an unmarried man and caregiver of his mother and therefore claimed a tax deduction. The IRS denied it because of his gender and marital status. Ginsburg argued that this was sex-based discrimination and won the case, successfully attaining the same Social Security rights for men that women received. The ruling declared that the IRS could not discriminate based on sex and led to a change in the IRS code that allows anyone to claim care-gving deductions regardless of sex. This was also an important case because it was essentially a springboard for Ginsburg and her fight for gender equality. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, “In winning a 63-year-old bachelor a minor tax refund, Ginsburg “found her foundational argument” against sex-based discrimination, says Jane Sharron De Hart, a professor emerita of history at University of California.” The Mortiz case was one of 5 of the gender discrimination cases Ginsburg successfully argued before the Supreme Court, and won. 

The list of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s accomplishments is extensive. But she wasn’t just a Supreme Court Justice; she was also a “pop icon”, according to NPR. She received the nickname “The Notorious RBG” from a law student in reference to rapper “the Notorious B.I.G” and the name not only stuck, but it became a symbol for the women’s rights movement. She was an icon for women and an icon for liberals, especially as the court grows “increasingly conservative.” 

Despite the political division, despite the critics, and despite the setbacks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was truly a uniting figure with a genuine passion for human rights and equality. She serves as an inspiration to people everywhere, men and women, young and old. “What sticks out to me is her determination to fight for rights even when she was denied so many opportunities to speak up about it,” said junior Olivia Ennis. “She never gave up and eventually became one of the biggest advocates for women’s rights in American history.” Her work over the course of her life not only moved us one step closer to closing the gender gap, but it also set off a movement that will forever change the way we define equality in America. She showed young generations that change is possible no matter what barriers remain. “She paved the way for so many young girls that have a big future and dream of doing something big,” junior Mia Dervisevic said. “Often, in society girls are told they have to do specific things but to keep [Ginsburg’s] legacy alive is to keep girls dreams alive and to show that whatever you dream of, you can make happen.” RBG’s advocacy for the rights of both men and women reflects the importance she placed on supporting each other and moving forward not as men or women but as humans. “We should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers,” Ginsburg once said. This is an idea we must all remember, especially as we navigate an upcoming election during a time of political and emotional unrest. To me, one of her greatest and most admirable accomplishments was her ability to invoke the same determination she had in others. It is the inspiration she has given so many of us, the examples she has set, and the achievements she has left behind as a reminder that the fight for equality is not over yet. 

As we get closer and closer to election day, the question of what to do about the vacancy Ginsburg left behind is a prominent one. Just 90 minutes after her death, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that the Trump Administration would immediately fill her seat in the Supreme Court, sparking backlash from RBG supporters and Democrats alike who argued that it was way too early to consider a replacement. According to her granddaughter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dying wish was not to be replaced before the next president was elected. However, the president does have the constitutional right to fill a vacant seat in the Supreme Court regardless of the circumstances and he named US Federal judge, Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to fill this vacancy. Barrett made several appearances in court for her confirmation hearings and on Monday, October 26, she was confirmed by the Senate in a 52 to 48 vote. Her confirmation has led to concerns about the future of rights for women and minority groups, especially because, according to Business Insider, there are nine upcoming Supreme Court cases where she could be the deciding vote. 

But no matter what happens, the difference Ruth Bader Ginsburg made will have a lasting impact on gender equality. Her advice will have a lasting impact too: “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” After all, “real change, enduring change happens one step at a time.”