Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The first Jewish woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court (and only the second woman on the Court), is a unique figure in the history of American law and of the twentieth- century women’s rights movement. After excelling at Harvard and Columbia law schools, she struggled to find a job because of sexism and antisemitism. While teaching at Rutgers University, she took on a few cases for the American Civil Liberties Union, then founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights project, where her storied career as an advocate for gender equality began. In 1980, she was confirmed for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, and in 1993 she became an associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. In later years, she became a cultural icon to countless younger women and social justice advocates.

Early life

Born in Brooklyn on March 15, 1933, Ginsburg was the first in her immediate family to attend college. She earned her B.A. from Cornell, with High Honors in Government, in 1954. Admitted to Harvard Law School, she delayed her studies to move with her husband to Oklahoma, where she worked for the Social Security Administration. Returning east, Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard in 1956, but switched to Columbia Law School for her final year when her husband accepted a job offer from a prestigious New York law firm. At both Harvard and Columbia, Ginsburg was accepted to the Law Review; at Columbia, she tied for first in her class.

Despite this record of achievement, Ginsburg found it difficult to work as a lawyer upon graduation. Few judges and no law firms were willing to accept a woman as clerk or staff member. Finally, she won a clerkship with Judge Edmund L. Palmieri of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Palmieri accepted her only on the promise from a male lawyer that if Ginsburg did not work out, he would find an overqualified man to take her place. That proved unnecessary. After her clerkship, Ginsburg worked for the Columbia Project on International Civil Procedure, which did basic research on foreign systems of civil procedure and recommended changes in the U.S. system of transnational litigation.

With the completion of the Columbia Project, Ginsburg embarked on an academic career, first at Rutgers University (1963-1972) (where she was paid less than her male colleagues), and then at Columbia (1972-1980), where she was the first tenured woman on the law faculty. Just before her move to Columbia, Ginsburg also became co-director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.

Dividing her time between Columbia and the ACLU, Ginsburg worked extensively on sex-discrimination cases, especially those relating to employment. In this work, Ginsburg filed briefs in nine major sex discrimination cases that were decided by the Supreme Court, personally arguing six of them. Ginsburg argued that protections granted to persons under the constitution should apply to women and, thus, successfully established that differential treatment based on gender was unconstitutional.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. She served there for thirteen years, until her nomination and confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. In nominating Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, President Clinton described her as “one of our nation’s best judges, progressive in outlook, wise in judgment, balanced and fair in her opinions.” He also said that “Ruth Bader Ginsburg cannot be called a liberal or a conservative. She has proved herself too thoughtful for such labels.” Ginsburg’s record as a centrist likely helped to ease her confirmation; the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously endorsed her nomination, and the full Senate voted 96-3 in her favor.

On the Court, Ginsburg’s work has been characterized by cool logic and reason, and a pragmatism that takes into account the real-life implications of Court decisions. In her written decisions she has continued to establish the constitutional basis for prohibiting discrimination based on gender. During the 2006–2007 session of the Court, Justice Ginsburg took the unusual step of reading two of her dissents orally. Observers have seen these forceful and passionate dissents as evidence of Ginsburg’s growing frustration with the decisions and reasoning of her more conservative colleagues.

Ginsburg’s contributions to the law were nothing short of monumental, but she never could have predicted the cultural icon she would become, the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary, “RBG,” featuring quotes from her cases and her speeches and highlighting her indomitable spirit with clips from her workouts with her trainer. And no one could have imagined the Saturday Night Live spoof; or the feature film “On the Basis of Sex,” starring Felicity Jones as Ginsburg; or the internet meme mirroring the deceased rapper Biggie Smalls’ meme (“Notorious B.I.G.”). She was the “Notorious RBG,” a beloved figure to new generations of young feminists and activists.

“Justice, justice you shall pursue”

On the wall in Ginsburg’s office hung the biblical saying “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.” Although she was not religiously observant, she proudly identified as a Jew: “I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew,” she said, in an address to the American Jewish Committee (Antler, 332). And she added, a fitting coda to her life’s work, “the demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition.”

This unquenchable demand for justice was reflected in the cases Ginsburg had argued, the causes she had advocated, and the Court’s decisions she authored. As Linda Greenhouse put it, Justice Ginsburg always “played a long game” with the “ultimate goal”—equality between the sexes, as well as racial equity, access to justice, procedural fairness—“constantly in view.”

It was indeed “a long game,” with extraordinary milestones and a remarkable legacy. Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020, of complications from pancreatic cancer. Her death prompted outpourings of grief and countless tributes from women young and old, feminists and civil rights activists, and a wide range of people concerned with social justice.

Editor’s Note: You can read Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s obituary here.

Reprinted from the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

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