Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death aged 87 last week marked a mammoth loss to American society. Abhorred by the right, admired by the left, and adored by a new generation of young feminists, there was no denying her unique stature as a formidable justice and unexpected celebrity.
Ginsburg was born to a Jewish family in New York in 1933. Described as a reserved and deep-thinking type by her friends, she became one of only nine women to be accepted into Harvard Law School in 1956, out of a class of almost 500. This first instance of breaking down gender barriers would soon become a pattern from which the lawyer would rarely deviate.
She left her studies only to struggle in finding a New York law firm that would hire her. A few years later, Ginsburg became a professor at Rutgers Law School, and, spurred on by her own experiences and by the ferocity of her female students, eventually co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in 1972.
It was in the position as director of this project that Ginsburg went on to win five out of six cases she brought to the Supreme Court. Ginsburg was quietly calculated in her crusade for equal gender treatment within the law. As told by the 2018 film On the Basis of Sex, she discovered that thousands of laws existed that discriminated based on assumptions of men and women’s place in society and subsequently endeavoured to challenge every last one.
Amongst Ginsburg’s victories, 1971 saw the Supreme Court extend the protections of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to women following a case she was involved in; her Fronterio vs Richardson case in 1973 concluded that benefits given by the military to its member’s family members cannot be different based on gender; and in 1975, the court again ruled in her favour over a case that challenged a law denying male widows the same rights to special benefits as their female counterparts.
In the decades that followed, Ruth Ginsburg only gained momentum, with her tenure as a Supreme Court judge after a nomination by President Clinton beginning in 1993. She had always maintained her support for controversial issues such as abortion rights, quoted saying “the basic thing is that the government has no business making that choice for a woman.” Having taken up her seat aligned with the political centre, Ginsburg felt a duty to maintain the balance of the Supreme Court, moving more to the left as her career progressed.
By 2020, though becoming ever fragile, her national presence had grown to an enormous scale. ‘The Notorious RBG’, as she was nicknamed, developed into a cult figure. Her increase in dissents against the court earned her enormous admiration amongst liberals and in particular, her calling out of Donald Trump as a ‘faker’ demonstrated the unsuspecting fire that continued to burn within her.
In the week following her passing, the Republicans have moved with unapologetic speed to try and get Ginsburg’s seat filled, despite her “most fervent wish” that she “will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
Over the weekend, President Trump nominated Judge Amy Cohen Barrett, a deeply conservative jurist, thus kicking off an election-season confirmation fight unlike any in American history. The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin hearings on Oct. 12.
As the battle over Ginsburg’s empty seat ensues, it is therefore important that we at least honor one of Ginsburg’s wishes- that she be remembered as “someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”