Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life Well Lived

By Sid Goldstein

Ruth Bader Ginsburg portrait in black and white


Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020. She was arguably, the most important Jewish supreme court justice since Felix Frankfurter. Judge Ginsberg lived an extraordinary life. In her roles as both a litigator and a judge, she left an indelible mark on the American legal system. She was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. She married Martin D. Ginsburg in 1954. She received her B.A. from Cornell University, attended Harvard Law School, and received her LL.B. from Columbia Law School where she graduated first in her class. Nonetheless, she received no offers from law firms upon her graduation from Columbia. She said “I had two strikes against me. I was a woman and I was a Jew.” So Ruth became a teacher instead. She worked at Rutgers, Columbia and Stanford. In 1971, she was instrumental in launching the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. This work resulted in her being hired as the General Council for the ACLU in 1973. During the early and mid-seventies, she litigated several highly publicized cases that helped reshape American jurisprudence. Reed v. Reed, for instance, dealt with an Idaho law that gave preference to a father over a mother in administering their late son’s estate. The case established women’s rights to manage the financial affairs of their own families. In some states, prior to this case, women were not even allowed to have independent checking accounts without their husband’s permission. Ginsburg advocated for Susan Struck (Struck v. Secretary of Defense), who had been told she needed to terminate her pregnancy if she wanted to stay in the Air Force–clearly an issue a man would never face.

The courts decided that such gender inequality in the military services was not sustainable. This was a landmark decision that opened the road to a far greater role for women in the US military services. In all, Ginsburg litigated six major cases before the US Supreme court and won five of them. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter selected her for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Thirteen years later, with the retirement of Justice Byron White, President Bill Clinton had the opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court justice for the first time and selected Ginsburg. She was confirmed by the US Senate on a vote of 96-3. Ginsburg was only the second woman, after Sandra Day O’Connor, to serve on the Supreme Court. In her 27 years

on the court, she was an unfailing advocate for human rights. She protected, as is called out in the Torah “the widow the orphan and the hungry.” In 1996, she wrote a strong majority opinion in the case of the Virginia Military Institute which had a male only admission policy. She wrote, “many women would not want to go to VMI, but many men would not, either. And as long as there are qualified women who want to go — and there are — they must be admitted.” Another landmark decision. In her later years, Justice Ginsburg became a cultural icon.

Jimmy Carter shakes hands with Ruth Bader GinsburgAfter the publication of the book The Notorious RBG, Ginsburg became a symbol of achievement and promise to young women all over the world. It was a remarkable testament to the life work of a small, shy Jewish lawyer, that she could become known as a symbol of human rights to so many. It will be some time before we see her like again.

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