By Sasha Tucker ’21
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, died yesterday at the age of 87. A statement from the Supreme Court reported the cause to be complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer.
In a 2013 interview, she said she would remain on the court “as long as I can do the job full steam.” At the time of her death, she had beaten cancer four times and had a stent placed in her right coronary artery. Ginsburg was physically small—five foot one and 100 pounds—but looms larger than life, even in death.
She can be found on pencil cases, tote bags, t-shirts, in movies starring Emilia Clarke and Armie Hammer, and tattooed on biceps. At 87 years old she was a cultural icon and a hero to women of all ages. A law student had given her the name Notorious R.B.G, a play on the name of the rapper Notorious B.I.G. She became an internet sensation.
Ginsburg was born on March 15, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York, to Jewish working-class parents. She attended Cornell University, graduating the highest-ranking woman in her class. In her first year at Cornell, she met her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg; the two were married a month after her graduation. They moved to Oklahoma, where she worked at the Social Security Administration and gave birth to a daughter.
In 1956, Ginsburg enrolled in Harvard Law School. She was one of nine women in a class of about 500 men. When her husband took a job in New York City, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School and became the first woman to be on two major law reviews. In 1959, she graduated from Columbia tied for first in her class.
From the beginning of her career, Ginsburg encountered blatant gender discrimination. In 1960, she was rejected from clerking for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter because he was, as related to her recommender, not ready to hire a woman. When working as a professor at Rutger Law School, she was informed that she would be paid less than her male colleagues because she had a husband with a well-paying job.
Ginsburg’s contribution to women’s rights was monstrous. In 1972, she co-founded the first law review on women’s issues, Women’s Rights Law Reporter, and co-authored the first casebook on gender discrimination. Also in 1972, she co-founded the women’s rights project at the American Civil Liberties Union. Between 1973 and 1976 she argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court and won five. She garnered a reputation as a skilled oral arguer and a strategic lawyer, targeting laws that on the surface appeared beneficial to women, but in fact reinforced the notion that women need to be dependent on men.
President Jimmy Carter nominated Ginsburg to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980. She spent thirteen years on the court and managed to find consensus with her conservative colleagues. In 1993, her service terminated when she was elevated to the Supreme Court.
Ginsburg was the second woman and first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court. She served for 27 years, and in her Senate hearing told the Senate Judiciary Committee that she would be neither a conservative nor a liberal on the Court, but someone who ruled cautiously, without reaching out to write broad principles into the law.
Ginsburg worked tirelessly to persuade the Supreme Court that the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection applied to sex discrimination. And she succeeded—in a 1976 case, Craig vs. Boren, the Court formally adopted the rule that official distinctions based on sex were subject to “heightened scrutiny” from the courts.
Ginsburg became a powerful symbol of feminism. Her interpretation of the 14th Amendment, now formally adopted by the court, has both protected and opened up opportunities for women. Her death comes at a time of intense political polarization, when women’s rights previously thought to be set in stone seem much less permanent.
Current high schoolers will vote and become adults in the years following her death. Three shared their thoughts on her passing:
“As a student who is interested in government and law, RBG was an inspiration to me. Whenever I heard her speak I was captivated by how she held her own and stayed firm in her opinions despite frequently being one of the only women in the room. She was a force to be reckoned with, never shying away from dissent. Her loss is one the court and this country might never recover from, and I can only hope her replacement is half the justice she was.”
Anna Falcone, 17, New York.
“RBG’s death is another event in a long line of events that have felt like the worst possible thing. It’s scary to me that my first thought when she died was that America was officially screwed; our system is set up in a way where one woman’s death could mean a regression on abortion, on access to healthcare, on LGBTQ+ rights. A system like that is inherently flawed. RGB deserves to be celebrated and mourned, not turned into a political talking point from now until the Inauguration. Her dying wish was that she wasn’t replaced before the November election, and already Mitch McConnell has announced he will deny that to her.”
Elly Pickette, 17, Massachusetts.
“RBG was a champion of the downtrodden. Her work is truly an inspiration and she drove immense positive change within our country, ultimately leaving a monumental legacy on our country. Her unexpected death is both deeply upsetting and terrifying. I knew that she was sick, but it had never truly registered with me that she was near death. Her absence from the political world is a huge blow to the fight against Donald Trump and all that he stands for, but it certainly also serves to heighten the urgency of my political activism.”
Rachel Schreiber, 17, New York.
The Iris is grateful for all that Ruth Bader Ginsburg exemplified throughout her amazing life.