Ruknoon Shadid Dinder
As you can guess from the title, this article focuses on a very special person. US Supreme Court Justice and feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at her home in Washington, DC, on September 18, 2020, from complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer. The 87-year-old, who was appointed to the nation’s highest court by President Bill Clinton in 1993 was the longest sitting Supreme Court Justice. She was also only the second woman, after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, to serve in this position. Later on, as right wing thoughts gained prevalence, Ginsburg was increasingly often at odds with the Court’s more conservative members due to her more centred political leanings. As such, she was a woman of controversy and her death was highly publicised, bringing joy to few and grief to many others. I believe a glimpse into the life of this wonderful lady would provide a lot of context and understanding of why she made her choices.
As I was researching for an intro, I tried long and hard to find the right words to paint her impact on our lives and I have come to realise that no amount of introduction does her justice; it’s best to let her work do the talking as was the case during her life. If you are living in Canada, chances are you have benefitted from the work she has done over the past 50 years. When we think of the leaders who shaped our modern world, Ginburg’s name will no doubt be among the first. Yet many have never heard of her. So why are countless people around the globe mourning the passing of this seemingly unknown person? Why is she such a prominent role model during a historically divisive time?
The answer lies in how she did it. Ginsburg’s self-assigned mission was not to seek attention or become a revolutionary, but to fight against inequality at a time when it was seen as the natural order of things. Actions which spoke louder than the words this soft-spoken, shy woman used. In the world of conservative populism, she was a pioneer on nearly every progressive piece of legislation. She was among the few who stood up and said, “I dissent,” even against unwinnable odds, such as the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision, which ended the vote count in Florida, and effectively led to George W. Bush’s presidential victory.
Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 15, 1933, to Jewish immigrants Celia and Nathan Bader. Her parents later changed her first name to Ruth when starting school, so as not to confuse her with multiple other Joans in her class. An excellent student from a young age, she was granted a full scholarship to Cornell University during a time when few women attempted higher education due to extreme stigma and dsicrimination. It was here that Ruth, who was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in government, met Martin “Marty” Ginsburg, whom she married shortly after graduating in 1954. Her mother struggled with cancer and died just before her graduation.
The early years of their marriage were challenging, as their first child, Jane, was born shortly after Martin was drafted into the military in 1954. The young couple moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for Martin’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) military training. It was here that Ms. Ginsburg had her first real encounter with workplace discrimination against women. Despite scoring high on the civil service exam, she was only offered a position as a typist. She lost that as well when she became pregnant with their first child as, back then, women were not allowed maternity leave and expected to stop working when pregnant. Martin served in the military for two years and, after his discharge, the couple enrolled into Harvard law school together. At Harvard, Ginsburg learned to balance life as a mother and her new role as a law student. She also encountered a very male-dominated, hostile environment, with only eight women in her class of 500. She was even asked by the Dean as to why she was occupying a space that “should go to a man.” To make matters worse, Martin was diagnosed with testicular cancer shortly after enrolling into law school. “So that left Ruth with a 3-year-old child, a fairly sick husband, the law review, classes to attend and feeding me,” Martinsaid in a 1993 interview with NPR. Nevertheless, she finished top of her class and got featured in the Harvard Law review.
Fortunately, Martin recovered and, upon graduation, accepted a position at a law firm in New York. This meant that Ginsberg , who still had a year of education left, had to transfer to Columbia University to complete her law degree. She performed excellently there as well and got featured in the Columbia Law review, becoming the first person in history to be featured in the reviews of both major American law schools. However, despite graduating at the top of her class, she could not find a job at a law firm. She was even recommended for a Supreme Court clerkship but was never interviewed for the position. It was not until her mentor, Columbia law professor Gerald Gunther, persuaded Federal District Court Judge Edmund Palmieri to hire her that she finally started her first clerkship. Palmieri was so impressed with Ginsburg’s work, he extended her position for a second year.
After her clerkship ended in 1963, Ginsburg landed a teaching job at Rutgers Law School, and it was here that she began her life-long quest to fight gender discrimination. After quitting Rutgers and beginning her law practice, instead of seeking out female clients, Ginsburg realised that it would be easier to convince the then all-male Supreme Court of that time to make changes if the plaintiffs were male, and so focused on taking cases where men were challenging the misogynistic laws. She believed fighting against laws that promoted gender biases would be beneficial to all. She began by arguing that gender based roles were an unfair basis for division of labour which was a rather unique stance to take at that time.
In 1974, Ginsburg tried what she always remembered as her favourite case, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld. Her client was a man whose wife, the primary bread earner, had died while giving birth. The husband, who wanted to spend more time with his newborn, was fighting to obtain Social Security benefits, which under the existing laws were only available to widows, not widowers. In her brief for the case, Ginsburg argued, “[I]f the society’s aim is to further…better care for growing children, it should…not [help] widows with dependent children and ignor[e] widowers in the same plight. [I]t is the economic and functional capability of the surviving breadwinner to care for children which counts; the sex of the surviving parent is incidental.” The court unanimously agreed, setting a precedent that would not only spell increased equality between men and women in the workplace, but also reduce gender and sexuality based discrimination. Recalling the Wiesenfeld case later, Ginsburg said: “This is my dream for society… Fathers loving and caring for and helping to raise their kids.” Such paternal engagement had been her own childhood experience and that within her own marriage. Her beloved husband of 56 years was not only deeply devoted to his wife and her career, but he was also fully engaged in the lives of their children and was famously the family’s talented cook.
Ginsburg’s superior oratory skills, which won her five of the six cases she presented to the Supreme Court, led President Jimmy Carter to nominate her to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980. In 1993, President Bill Clinton sought her out to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by retiring Justice Byron White. Though she was not the first person on his list, it took just one meeting with Ginsburg to convince the President she was the right fit. She had a similar effect on the Senate, who confirmed her appointment with a resounding 96-3 vote. Thus she became the first Jewish person and second woman to sit on the Supreme Court.
During her 27 years as a Supreme Court Justice, Justice Ginsburg often argued against unfair laws. However, her most passionate dissents were always to defend women’s rights issues. One of her biggest wins was a 1996 ruling reversing the long-standing male-only admission policy at the state-funded Virginia Military Institute (VMI). This landmark case helped the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the long-standing male-only admission policy of the VMI in a 7–1 decision, Justice Antonin Scalia being the only dissenter. Writing for the majority, Justice Ginsburg stated that because VMI failed to show “exceedingly persuasive justification” for its sex-based admissions policy, it violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. With the VMI decision, the high court effectively struck down any law which, as Justice Ginsburg wrote, “denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature — equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society.” VMI was the last all-male public university in the United States. United States v. Virginia is now a seminal case discussed in most Constitutional Law classes, which most students take during their first year of law school.
Her other major involvement was her stance on the promotion of abortions rights and the legal protection of it. It began with her dissent piece on the infamous Supreme Court case of Roe vs Wade that argued that the 14th Amendment in the U.S Constitution provides a right to privacy that protects a pregnant woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Justice Ginsburg chose not to litigate any abortion cases while directing the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s but was constantly strongly opposed to the ruling, stating that the case was decided on the wrong constitutional basis. For her, state restrictions on abortion were akin to sex discrimination and should fall under the equal protection clause. Once on the Supreme Court herself, Justice Ginsburg took the occasion of her dissent in the 2007 case Gonzales v. Carhart to officially announce her disagreement against Roe’s “privacy” rationale: “Legal challenges to undo restrictions on abortion procedures do not seek to vindicate some generalized notion of privacy; rather, they center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.”
During her tenure on the Supreme Court, she was never able to convince a majority that abortion restrictions violate the equal protection clause. In fact, her steadfast stance on the issue alienated the more conservative members and removed the bipartisan support she had enjoyed until then. But the equality rationale that she and others had articulated in law review articles over two decades was front and center when the court decided Planned Parenthood v. Casey, one year before she joined the bench. As the plurality in Casey put it, “The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.”
So when a smart and selfless person like Ginsburg passes, we rightly want to celebrate her life and contribution — not only as a pioneering lawyer and universally respected Justice but also as a wife and mother. It is a testimony to Ginsburg’s sense of right and wrong that we applaud her tenacious drive for equal justice. But we also are taking this otherwise sad occasion to remind ourselves why we admired her in the first place. And it is perhaps because of today’s political divisiveness that we yearn to celebrate Ginsburg’s calm, civil discourse. Her brilliant legal mind, courage in the face of cancer, and respect for others.
The question must be asked: Why, in the year 2020, is the work of this great lady under threat of being completely undone? Why have people moved so far from idealistic principles that the safety and empowerment of minorities in the USA hinged on the survival of an 87 year old woman? Well, whatever the answer may be, the fate of our neighbours is not in our hands. As an increasingly volatile modern USA starts to encounter security problems, both internationally and internally, it has become necessary to learn from their actions and mistakes so as not to repeat them for ourselves. We can only hope that her successor Justice Amy Coney Barret will prove to be as instrumental to the promotion of human rights in the USA. But it is also our job to hold these individuals accountable and ensure they carry out their mandates. It is a never ending struggle but we must perform with diligence to make sure heroes like Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not live their lives in vain.