RBG: A Legend of Her Own Making

Photo by Sarah Silbiger from Getty Images

In 1955, she had her first child, a daughter; just a year later, Ginsburg began Harvard Law School, becoming one of a handful of women in a class of about 500 men. When her husband got a better job in New York, Ginsburg transferred from Harvard to Columbia and became the first woman to ever be on two major law reviews. She graduated from law school in 1959, tied for the first spot in her class; but finding a job as a woman was a tough journey. Despite her amazing recommendation letters, Ginsburg was rejected from every job to which she applied, until one of her professors at Columbia threatened to not recommend any more students to Judge Palmier unless he gave Ginsburg a job. She worked with Judge Palmier for two years in a clerkship position.

    From 1961 to 1963, she worked as a research associate and then associate director on the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure. While working on this project, she co-wrote a book on Sweden’s civil procedures with Ander Bruzelius, Swedish legal scholar. She spent some time in Sweden and learned the language to collect data for their book. While in Sweden, she gained knowledge and perspective on gender equality and was inspired by the hardworking women she met, who were studying law and still working while pregnant. 

    Ginsburg was hired for her first professor job at Rutgers Law School in 1963, where she was paid less than her male colleagues with the reasoning being that her husband also had a well-paid job. Because of this, she and her female colleagues filed an Equal Pay Act complaint, which they won. She worked at Rutgers from 1963-1972 and was tenured in 1969. In 1970, she became co-founder of the first American law journal solely focused on women’s rights, Women’s Rights Law Reporter. While teaching at Columbia, from 1972-1980, she became the first tenured woman and co-wrote the first law school casebook on sex discrimination. In 1972, Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, a project that helped in over 300 gender discrimination cases by 1974. Throughout the ‘70s, she participated in many cases, fighting discrimination targeting both men and women and working to extend the Equal Protections clause of the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution.

Photo from Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

    In 1980, she was nominated by President Jimmy Carter for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a position she held for 13 years. In 1993, Ginsburg was nominated by President Bill Clinton to the Supreme Court, making her the second woman and the first Jewish woman to serve on the highest court in the land. Just six years later, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She went through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, yet did not miss even one day on the bench.

     In the 27 years Gonsburg served as a Supreme Court justice, she fought against the Virginia Military Institute’s male only policy and pay discrimination based on gender. She was involved in the court ruling of Bush v. Gore (2000), which dealt with the recount of votes for that year’s election. She helped pass the law that allowed same-sex couples to get married.

     Due to her progressive views and advocacy for equality, she became a pop-culture icon known as the “Notorious RBG.” Ginsburg embraced this image, even though she said the only thing she and the rapper Notorious B.I.G. had in common was being born and raised in Brooklyn. However, lawyer Shana Kniznick told NPR a few years ago that the Supreme Court justice and rapper were also in that “they both speak truth to power and can pack a verbal punch.”

     On September 18, 2020, Ginsburg passed away after her 21-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Many stood on the steps of the Supreme Court that day, celebrating her life and mourning her loss. There was a private ceremony at the Supreme Court’s Great Hall on September 23 until the 24th, and her casket was later moved to the front steps to allow the public to say their last goodbyes. Even in her death, RBG is breaking glass ceilings, becoming the first woman and Jewish person to be laid to rest at the U.S. Capitol on September 25. On September 29, she was taken to Arlington National Cemetery and buried beside her husband, and we officially bid farewell to one of America’s most prominent figures.