7 Things You Didn't Know About Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Today, March 15th, is the 84th birthday of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman ever nominated to the US Supreme Court— and you can stop worrying, because she won't be announcing her retirement any time soon; Ginsburg has stated publicly that she'll hold on "as long as I think I have the candlepower" and can still reel off cases off the top of her head. We're all grateful for the continuing presence of RBG on the highest bench in the land; but while most of us have only ever known her in her incarnation as a Supreme Court Justice, she had a long and sometimes fraught road to the office, filled with tragedy and heavy doses of sexist f*ckery. To celebrate the birthday of this human incarnation of the word "unstoppable," we've brought together some of the aspects of her biography you may not know.
Ginsburg has occasionally courted controversy in her career; recently, her characterization of athlete Colin Kaepernick's kneeling protest at the National Anthem as "dumb" brought on a firestorm of controversy, for which Ginsburg later apologized, saying that she was "barely aware of the incident or its purpose," and that her response was "inappropriately dismissive and harsh." However, there's more to Ginsburg than opinions from the bench and ill-judged comments to the media. Let's get into what there is to know about this 84-year-old who's keeping the liberal side of the Supreme Court afloat.
Her Mother Was Also Awesome
Ginsburg's mother, Celia Bader, was one of her biggest inspirations — not because of Celia's own college education or professional success, but precisely because she didn't have the opportunity to achieve those things.As a young woman, Celia worked in a garment factory to help put her brother through college; she was then a stay-at-home mother throughout Ruth's own childhood and adolescence. Her parents' sacrifices and deprivations meant a lot to Ginsburg, who would later comment:
"I am … a first generation American on my father’s side, barely second generation on my mother’s. Neither of my parents had the means to attend college, but both taught me to love learning, to care about people, and to work hard for whatever I wanted or believed in.”
Tragically, while Celia remained a huge influence in Ginsburg's life — in fact, Ginsburg would wear her jewelry while arguing cases in the Supreme Court and referred to her as "the bravest and strongest person I have ever known" — Celia never got the chance to see her daughter's remarkable career. She passed away from cancer the day before Ginsburg's high school graduation, before Ginsburg's time in the law had even begun.
Her Dean At Harvard Was Extremely Sexist
When Ginsburg entered Harvard Law School in 1956, it was not exactly a bastion of gender equality. Ginsburg was one of only nine women in a class of over 500. She'd later recall that at a dinner specifically for those nine, Dean Erwin Griswold, the head of the Law School (who was later Solicitor General under both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon), would ask each of the women a question: "How do you justify taking a place in this class that would otherwise have gone to a man?" The environment was excruciatingly sexist (one library room was male-only and wouldn't allow female students to check out law reviews), but Ginsburg managed to make her mark, serving as the first ever female member of the Harvard Law Review.
Her Collars Give Insight Into Her Beliefs
A 2015 biography, titled (unsurprisingly) The Notorious RBG, revealed a few titbits about the private life of the Supreme Court Justice, including the fact that she can bench press more than several other Justices and still works out twice a week in the Court's own gym. But it was a fact about her distinctive neckwear that stood out.
According to biographer Irin Carmon, Ginsburg, who famously collects jabots to wear atop her black robes from around the world and often favors white lace or intricate embroidery, has a specific "dissent collar": a jabot with scalloped glass beads. It's a widely known fact in the legal community that when Ginsburg shows up in that jabot, she's deeply disapproving and either about to deliver a judgement that disagrees, or commenting on the state of things in general. She wore it on the bench just after the 2016 election, on a day when no opinions were being read — an act that The Hill commented "is being widely interpreted as a repudiation of Donald Trump’s victory." Sometimes, clothing speaks louder than words.
She Had Difficulty Finding A Job In The 1960s
By the time Ginsburg had finished law school (she'd switched to Columbia and graduated at the top of her class), a glittering law career would seem to have been assured — except for the fact that it was the 1960s and she was a woman with a child. She was, according to her recollection, rejected by all 14 law firms to which she'd sent an application. The reason? "We don't hire women." She would later explain it in an interview:
“In the fifties, the traditional law firms were just beginning to turn around on hiring Jews. … But to be a woman, a Jew, and a mother to boot, that combination was a bit much."
Eventually she was helped out by a Columbia professor who nominated her, and only her, to a job as clerk to US District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri. After her period as his clerk, she discovered that she was still being offered lower salaries for jobs than equally qualified male counterparts, so she moved with her husband to Sweden, where she translated the Swedish law code into English and also noted the far higher levels of gender equality in Swedish society.
She Co-Founded The First Law Review On Women's Rights
Beyond the legacies of her opinions from the bench (and her excellent style), Ginsburg's influence continues to be felt in the legal world through the fact that she co-founded the first American law review to be explicitly focussed on women's rights issues,Women’s Rights Law Reporter.
It coincided with her work with the ACLU, and the case Reed vs. Reed, which was her first ever case for the Supreme Court and the first time that the Court ever decided that the 14th Amendment did actually cover discrimination on the basis of gender. (Yes, you read that right; this was only 40 years ago.) The review first came into existence in 1971, and was originally published independently, before Ginsburg fought for it to be published by Rutgers Law School. But that took a while; it would move onto campus by 1972, but wouldn't become formally affiliated with the university till 1974.
She Experienced Some Serious Discrimination Over Being Pregnant
Ginsburg's attempts to protect the employment rights of pregnant women began early, with her own experiences. While attempting to get a job before law school at a social security office in Oklahoma, where her husband was stationed, she told the hiring officer she was three months pregnant. She was promptly demoted three levels in pay and refused training; a coworker who concealed her pregnancy faced no such problems.
When she unexpectedly became pregnant with her second child, she was working as a non-tenured junior law professor at Rutgers, and the first experience had created such a grave precedent that she made a bold choice: conceal her pregnancy from her employers. She wore baggy clothes, didn't tell her colleagues until after her contract had been renewed, and was back at work when the fall semester began, three weeks after giving birth.
She Maintains That Gender Equality Must Be The Law
While Ginsburg's victories and opinions in explicitly feminist cases before the Supreme Court — like her dissent in the Lily Ledbetter case on equal pay for women — have earned her the deserved status of a feminist hero, her own perspective on the law is one of gender equality.
She regards Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975) as a "gem of a case" for demonstrating the principle. Under law at the time, widows could receive social security benefits, but widowers could not. Stephen Wiesenfeld, whose wife Paula had died in childbirth in 1972, sued for the right to social security that came from Paula's income, which was available to widows but not to men with deceased wives. Ginsburg argued the case, pointing out that women paid social security at the same rate as men and that their families should be protected in the case of their deaths. The Supreme Court would declare Wiesenfeld's situation unconstitutional, saying that:
"Since the Constitution forbids the gender-based differentiation premised upon assumptions as to dependency.... the Constitution also forbids the gender-based differentiation that results in the efforts of women workers required to pay social security taxes producing less protection for their families than is produced by the efforts of men."