We look up to tall people—think George Washington and Abe Lincoln—both at 6’4” stood out in a crowd. Today there are more people that reach that height or higher– the Lakers’ LeBron James and former New England QB, now Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady.
Consider a person who would barely come up to the waist of any of these men and whose bird-like body weighed a fraction of any of them, yet she trained that body and worked her essential muscle, her brain, to lay out a positive future that will live on. Whatever scenarios play out while prayers over her body are yet to be sung, her legacy will not be stolen from us.
I can attest to her small stature. Seven years ago, I saw her step out of the back seat of a black car and make her way slowly towards the Watergate residences, where she owned an apartment. Surprised that she was indeed as diminutive as reported, I could see the strength of purpose that came from within this then 80-year-old woman as she walked.
Born in 1933 to a low-income, working-class family, Ruth came a generation after my grandmothers who daily swept the steel filings off their porches in Gary, Indiana, both living to be near 90. We swore that steel found its way into their spines. Ginsburg forged her own steel as she met and overcame challenges that could have melted a lesser woman. How did she become RGB? Let me count the ways.
- Her mother struggled with cancer throughout her daughter’s high school days, dying the day before Ruth graduated. She carried her mother’s memory as she attended Cornell, graduating first in her class with a degree in government in 1954. Ruth Bader married Martin Ginsburg and he was drafted that year.
- Two years later, military duty completed, now with a child, they enrolled in Harvard Law School together. Ruth was one of eight women among 500 law students, unlikely any of the women had a child and needed to balance that role with that of a law student and wife.
- The law school dean reprimanded those eight women for taking the place of a qualified male.
- Her husband, Martin, contracted testicular cancer in 1956. Ruth took notes for him in class, cared for him and their daughter, and continued her own studies. Still she excelled academically to become the first female member of the Harvard Law Review.
- Martin recovered, graduated Harvard Law and accepted a job with a New York law firm.
- To keep the family together, she transferred to Columbia Law School and was again elected to the school’s law review.
- Despite graduating FIRST in her class at Columbia, law firms put out a “no women need apply” sign.
- Ruth clerked for a federal judge for two years, then taught law students at Rutgers for nearly a decade, before accepting a position at Columbia. There she taught for eight years and became the FIRST woman at the law school to receive tenure.
- She directed the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU in the 1970s and brought six cases to the Supreme Court, winning five. One came out of the Social Security Act (SSA). A man’s wife had died in childbirth, making him a widower. He wanted to raise their child himself. Then if he had been a widow, he would have received benefits enabling him to do so, but not as a widower. She argued successfully that SSA should cover men as well as women.
This background propelled Ginsburg onto the U.S. Court of Appeals for DC, when her accomplishments caught the eye of President Jimmy Carter. In 1993 President Bill Clinton selected her to fill the seat vacated by Justice Byron White. Some on the Judiciary Committee grumbled about her evasive answers to hypothetical questions, but candidates for the Court rarely engage queries of that nature, including the two most recent additions to the Court. The Senate confirmed her with a 96-3 Senate vote. After the Assistant Attorney General administered the oath, his son slipped around from behind him and the face of the newly sworn Justice lit up, welcoming the boy and shaking his hand. A warm human reaction she would also extend backstage to opera singers of Washington’s Metropolitan Opera, according to opera lover Thomas Saunders III, Chairman of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative group in DC. Antonio Scalia, her polar legal opposite on the Court, enjoyed discussions about music and opera with her—anything but the law. They laughed about it.
Moderate-Liberal for Gender Equality, Worker’s Rights Cases
United States v. Virginia – Ginsburg wrote the 1996 landmark decision that state-supported Virginia Military Academy could not refuse to admit women.
Bush v. Gore – She dissented in the Court’s decision in the 2000 presidential election, concluding with the words, “I dissent,” not adding “respectfully.”
King v. Burwell – Ginsburg upheld critical components of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in 2015 allowing the federal government to continue providing subsidies to Americans who purchase health care through “exchanges,” whether they are state or federally operated in a 6-3 decision.
Obergefell v. Hodges – Ginsburg had officiated same-sex marriages and ruled with the 5-4 majority.
During the 2016 campaign, she registered her opinion of the Republican candidate that he was a “faker,” then later apologized for speaking out. He released a list of candidates he would consider for the Court, as he discussed the future of elderly justices, including Ginsburg, then 84. The petite Justice responded by hiring a full slate of clerks through 2020, when she would turn 87.
Fighting to the end, Ginsburg pushed her diminished body through five bouts with cancer, but finally the strength of her will could not win a battle against a physical foe she had held at bay for over a decade.
RBG They Would Call Her
Eight tall men walked across a well-trod stage followed by a diminutive woman in 1993. When they sat down, the woman’s face barely rose above the dais. Her soft, quiet voice barely created a ripple in the room. But the steel in her words and the content of her character woke a nation, slowly bending the arc of justice towards progress that will not be stopped.