Small in stature, she made a big impact on the laws of the land and countless students and world leaders.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the second woman appointed the Supreme Court. She was a pioneering advocate for women’s rights and became an icon for younger generations for her dissents as well as her legal opinions. Younger generations have embraced her as a cultural icon, donning T-shirts with “You Can’t Spell Truth Without Ruth,” and getting tattoos of RBG in her judicial robe and feminine collar. (FREE worksheet with writing prompts below!)
“She has done more to shape the law in this field than any other justice on this court,” the late Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia said in 2013 of his good friend and often opposing opinion on many important cases. “She will take a lawyer who is making a ridiculous argument and just shake him like a dog with a bone.”
Path to Law
RBG was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. Her mother, Celia, regularly took her young, curious reader to the library to quench her thirst for knowledge. She began studying law in high school and went on to major in government at Cornell University. This is where she met the love of her life, Martin Ginsburg. She was only one of 9 women in a class of 500. After she and Martin married in 1954 and had their first child, Jane, the little family transferred to Columbia University.
She finished her law degree there and tied for top of her class. While she was highly qualified, her applications to be a law clerk were denied based on her gender. The fact that she was also a mother also drew discrimination from hiring firms. Eventually, she was hired and as a lawyer worked diligently on women’s rights cases in front of the Supreme Court. RBG was also a law professor at Rutgers University and then Columbia University before President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the United States Court of Appeals in 1980.
Supreme Court Opinions and Dissents
In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court. In 1996, the court, led by Ginsburg, ruled on the United States v. Virginia, in which the all-male admissions policy at the Virginia Military Institute was challenged. In the opinion led by RBG, she wrote “generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.”
One of her most well-known dissents regarding key civil rights law came from Shelby County vs. Holder. Chief Justice John Roberts led a majority in the decision that held that a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was no longer constitutional. The provision would have required certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to undergo federal oversight before putting in place any changes in its voting procedures. Ginsburg wrote that “[t]hrowing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
This dissent earned her the moniker “Notorious RBG.” Shana Knizhnik, a New York University law student, created a Tumblr account with a in honor of Ginsburg’s dissent in the landmark Supreme Court case. The nickname was in reference to late rapper Biggie Smalls’ nickname, Notorious B.I.G.
Quotes from RBG
My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.
I said on the equality side of it, that it is essential to a woman’s equality with man that she be the decision-maker, that her choice be controlling.
Women will only have true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.
Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.
Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.