Ginsburg, Ruth Bader (1933—)

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Ginsburg, Ruth Bader (1933—)

American advocate, specializing in sex-discrimination cases, and the second woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Born Joan Ruth Bader on March 15, 1933, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York; younger of two daughters of Nathan Bader (a clothier and furrier) and Celia (Amster) Bader; attended James Madison High School; graduated Cornell University, B.A., 1954; attended Harvard Law School; graduated Columbia Law School, 1959; granted honorary degree, University of Lund, Sweden, 1969; married Martin D. Ginsburg (a lawyer), 1954; children: Jane Ginsburg (b. 1955); James Ginsburg (b. 1965).

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 15, 1933, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was raised as an only child from age one, when her older sister Marilyn died from meningitis. Ginsburg was strongly influenced by her mother, Celia Bader , a dynamic woman who shared with her daughter a love of reading and language. Celia also shared her frustration in the socially circumscribed life for a woman with ambition in the 1930s. In 1950, the day before Ginsburg graduated from James Madison High School in Brooklyn, her mother died of cervical cancer, an illness she had been fighting for four years. Determined that her daughter have a chance for the career she had longed for, Celia Bader had salted away several thousand dollars toward Ruth's education. When Ginsburg won a scholarship to Cornell University, she gave the money to her father.

Upon graduation from Cornell, Ruth married Martin D. Ginsburg, a fellow graduate and fellow lawyer. They both then entered Harvard Law School where Ginsburg was one of only nine women in a class of over 500. At a welcoming reception, Erwin N. Griswold, dean of the law school, asked each woman to justify the filling of a slot better served by a man. To prove her worth, "Ruthless Ruthie" studied intensely during her years at Harvard, and, though women were barred from the periodical room of the Lamont Library, she was elected editor of the Harvard Law Review. In their second year, Martin was diagnosed with testicular cancer. While he underwent radiation, Ruth added his classes to her agenda, taking notes and typing his papers.

When Martin, who graduated on schedule, took a job with a law firm in Manhattan, Ruth transferred to Columbia University Law School, worked on the Columbia Law Review, and, upon graduation in 1959, tied for first place in her class. With her law degree and a passing of the New York Bar exam, she signed up for every law job interview available. "Not a single law firm in the city of New York bid for my employment," she said, citing not only her gender but the fact that she was a Jew and a mother. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter refused to interview her because he was not interested in hiring a woman, while Judge Learned Hand refused to work with women because it would inhibit his freedom to curse. She was finally hired as a clerk with Edmund L. Palmieri, a federal district judge in New York. Completing her clerkship in 1961, she worked on Columbia Law School's International Procedure project for two years as well as studying at the University of Lund in Sweden. Three books came out of that experience, Civil Procedure in Sweden (with Anders Bruzelius, 1965), Text, Cases, and Materials on Sex-Based Discrimination (with Herma Hill Kay and Kenneth M. Davidson, 1974), and The Swedish Code of Judicial Procedure (translation with Bruzelius, 1968).

In 1963, Ginsburg joined the faculty of Rutgers University Law School, only the second woman to do so and one of the first 20 women to teach in an American law school. She had undergone a long series of setbacks and slights because of her gender but was not fully aware of the pattern until she read Simone de Beauvoir 's The Second Sex. Simultaneously, the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) began to refer sex discrimination cases to her. "I repaired to the library," noted Ginsburg, "and spent the better part of a month reading every article written and every published federal case in the area since the nation's start." This was not a daunting task, however, since "there was so little." "In the process, my own consciousness was awakened. I began to wonder, How have people been putting up with such arbitrary distinctions? How have I been putting up with them?" Her first major case was Reed v. Reed, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with her brief, reversing an Idaho law that preferred men over women for executorship of an estate. It was the first time a law was overturned because of a woman's complaint of unfair sexual bias.

In 1972, Ginsburg was hired as founding counsel, then general counsel, to the ACLU's Women's Rights Project. "The project's goal was to get decision-makers to understand what sex stereotyping is and how the notion that men are this way (frogs, snails, puppy dogs' tails) and women are that way (sugar, spice, everything nice) ends up hurting both sexes." She also joined the staff of Columbia Law School as its first tenured female professor. Preferring to stick with cases that she felt had a good chance of winning, Ginsburg's box score before the U.S. Supreme Court was 5 wins, 1 loss.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. During her tenure, she wrote 300 opinions, mostly taking a moderate position. When she was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, her position as a centrist alarmed many liberals, and she was not endorsed by the ACLU. In the area of abortion, a bone of contention with many of her critics, Ginsburg had maintained that the 1973 Supreme Court law should have been grounded in the equal protection clause which outlawed sex discrimination rather than cast as a privacy issue. Generally, Ginsburg refused to discuss controversial issues during nomination hearings, but she did testify on July 21, 1993, that abortion is "something central to a woman's life, to her dignity. It's a decision she must make for herself. And when government controls that decision for her, she's being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices."

As regards the Equal Rights Amendment, Ginsburg had long been an advocate. In 1981, she had told Lynn Gilbert and Gaylen Moore for their book Particular Passions: "We know the Founding Fathers in the eighteenth century did not think men and women were or should be equal before the law…. It's hard to read into provisions written over a century ago our modern concept that men and women should have equal opportunities, so far as government action is concerned. Yet the Supreme Court Justices have been doing just that. They have done so because

our Constitution is meant to survive through the ages; there must be some adaptation to changing times and conditions. But it would be so much cleaner if the Constitution were amended to state the sex equality principle expressly. A case by case approach could achieve the same end, but not as solidly or securely. The same issues would have to be fought out again and again and again."

Ginsburg's nomination was confirmed by the Senate with a vote of 96-to-3. In her acceptance speech, she spoke of her mother, "the bravest and strongest person I have known…. I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons."


Gilbert, Lynn, and Gaylen Moore. Particular Passions. NY: Clarkson Potter, 1981.

Graham, Judith, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1994.

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Ginsburg, Ruth Bader (1933—)

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