A more international HerStory: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

, by Christian Gibbons, Isabelle Walker, Madelaine Pitt

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

A more international HerStory: Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks on the Main Stage of the National Book Festival in 2019. Photo: Library of Congress Life

The New Federalist is running a fortnight-long feature called European HerStory - a study and celebration of feminine achievements European history - which has been months in the planning. In light of the recent passing of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, however, we decided to dedicate an article to her as a spontaneous addition to our existing feature. Although her work most directly influenced events in the United States, her reputation as a trailblazer for gender equality was known throughout the world. Given the timing of our feature and the loss to the US and the causes to which she dedicated her life, we felt it was right to pay tribute to her and her work here in The New Federalist.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (15th March 1933 – 19th September 2020) was born to Jewish parents in New York City. Her father emigrated from Odessa when it was still a part of the Russian Empire, while her mother was the American-born daughter of Austrian Jewish immigrants.

Having initially enrolled at Harvard’s Law School as one of only nine female graduate students in a class of 500, she eventually transferred to Columbia University, where she tied for first in her class. The American legal profession at this time was still heavily male-dominated; Ginsburg experienced a lot of prejudice at the start of her legal career, which led to difficulty in finding employment. Of the 12 firms with which she interviewed, she was not offered a job by any of them. Although Professor Albert Sachs of Harvard personally recommended her to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, the Justice declined to offer her the post of law clerk, apparently too uncomfortable with the thought of a woman with such responsibility..

Despite the discrimation she suffered, Ginsburg began a flourishing career in academia, and published extensively on women’s issues. Ginsburg also worked as a litigator for the Women’s Rights Project at American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the 1970s – a project which she helped found. She was involved in one of the first Supreme Court case rulings on gender equality, and wrote the brief that caused sex discrimination to be ruled as unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1993, she was nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court, becoming the second female justice in the institution’s 212 year long history. In this role, alongside many important interventions, she was instrumental in achieving justice in a pay-equity case which ultimately paved the way for legislation on equal pay.

Ginsburg sadly passed away this past Friday. But her judicial legacy – ranging from cases involving healthcare, women’s rights, environmental protections, same-sex marriage, and much more – is complex, consequential, and ultimately well worth remembering. Her ability to form friendships with people of opposing political predilections (such as the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia) will also be missed. This is particularly true in an age in which the Supreme Court has become more politicized than ever before in recent memory.

In Hebrew, the words tzadik (“righteous one”) and tzedek (“justice”) are closely connected. Perhaps no one embodied this better than Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose example will hopefully continue to inspire others for many years to come - especially young women. In her own words: “women belong in all places where decisions are being made”.

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