Bader Ginsburg is the first Jewish woman (and only the second
woman) appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
Bader Ginsburg was born as Joan Ruth Bader in 1933 to Nathan
Bader and Celia Amster Bader. She grew up in the Flatbush
section of Brooklyn, where her Russian immigrant father
worked as a furrier. Her older sister, Marilyn, died when
Ruth was six years old, leaving her as an only child. Ruth’s
Jewish identity was shaped by World War II and the Holocaust.
“World War II raged on during my grade school years,”
said Ginsburg. “Jews fortunate enough to be in the
United States during those years could hardly avoid identifying
themselves with the cause of the Jewish people.” During
her senior year of high school, Ruth’s mother was
diagnosed with cancer. She died at age 47, one day before
Ruth’s high school graduation.
received a New York State scholarship to attend Cornell
University, where she had the reputation of being beautiful,
popular, and exceptionally smart, graduating Phi Beta Kappa.
She met Martin D. Ginsburg, another pre-law student, and
they married in 1954, just after Ruth’s graduation.
Martin, one year older than Ruth, had completed his first
year at Harvard law school, but was drafted into the army.
living in Lawton, Oklahoma for the next two years, Ginsburg
took a job with the Social Security Office. But when she
disclosed that she was pregnant, her supervisor arbitrarily
decided that she could not travel to a training session
required for her job and demoted her three levels in pay.
In 1955, she gave birth to her daughter, Jane, now a professor
of law at Columbia Law School and a leading authority on
copyright and trademark law.
1956-58, both Ginsburgs attended Harvard Law School. Ruth
was one of only 9 women in a first year class of over 500
students. At a dinner hosted by the dean in honor of the
women students, she was aghast when the dean asked each
woman to explain why she was attending law school when she
was occupying a student slot that could have been filled
by a man! This incident just made her even more determined
to excel in law school, earning her the nickname “Ruthless
Ruthie.” Despite the extra demands of motherhood,
she was appointed to the prestigious Harvard Law Review
at the end of her first year.
her second year at Harvard, Martin Ginsburg was diagnosed
with a rare form of cancer that few survive. He underwent
extensive surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy.
Ruth Ginsburg attended her husband’s classes, took
notes for him and typed his papers, also caring for their
preschool daughter. She did all of these things while continuing
to excel in her own law studies and working on the Harvard
her husband graduated and obtained a job in a New York law
firm, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School so their
family could remain together. There she also was named to
the law review and tied for first place in her graduating
class of 1959.
her success as a star pupil in law school did not help her
obtain a job in the law profession. Not a single law firm
in the entire city of New York offered her a position. “In
the fifties,” Ginsburg said, “traditional law
firms just were beginning to turn around on hiring Jews.
But to be a woman, a Jew, and a mother to boot, that combination
was too much.” Based on her outstanding scholastic
record, professors at Harvard Law School proposed her as
a Supreme Court law clerk. However, Justice Felix Frankfurter
(also Jewish) responded that he was not yet prepared to
hire a woman.
first job was a clerkship with Judge Edmund L. Palmieri
of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of
New York, one of the few federal judges who hired women
law clerks. At the completion of her clerkship, Ginsburg
worked on the Columbia Project on International Civil Procedure,
learning Swedish in order to help rewrite and translate
the Swedish Judicial Procedure Code. In 1963, she accepted
a position at Rutgers, one of the few law schools willing
to appoint women faculty members. While she was an untenured
assistant professor of law at Rutgers Law School, she became
pregnant with her second child and feared that her contract
would be terminated. She hid her pregnancy during the spring
semester, with the help of a larger size wardrobe borrowed
from her mother-in-law! Her son, James, was born in the
fall, just before classes resumed. She became a full professor
at Rutgers in 1969, and, three years later, became the first
tenured female professor at Columbia Law School.
Ginsburg had not entered the law profession to be an advocate
for women’s rights, her personal encounters with the
obstacles faced by women attempting to combine career and
family lead her to take an interest in cases dealing with
sex discrimination. She realized that the second-class treatment
she experienced in her career was part of a larger problem—social
conditions that denied women choices and opportunities open
to men. Previously, the Supreme Court had upheld legalization
of sexual stereotyping under the rationale that women were
in need special protection. The reality of such laws was
to unfairly limit opportunities for women. In 1972, she
became a founder and director of the Women’s Rights
Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, through which
she worked to demonstrate that sex-based classifications
within the law discriminated between men and women in an
unconstitutional manner. In the 1970s, Ginsburg won 5/6
women’s rights cases that she argued before the Supreme
Court. The effect of these decisions was to change laws
nationwide to reduce gender discrimination in hiring and
prevent job termination because of pregnancy.
remained on the Columbia Law School faculty from 1972 to
1980. In 1980, she was appointed by President Carter to
the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
On June 14, 1993, President Clinton appointed Ruth Bader
Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying that he believed
“she will be able to be a force for consensus-building
on the Supreme Court.” At the announcement in the
White House Rose Garden, Judge Ginsburg paid tribute to
her mother when she said, “I pray that I may be all
that she would have been had she lived to an age when women
could aspire and achieve, and daughters are cherished as
much as sons.” In the confirmation proceedings, she
received the highest rating from the American Bar Association,
and was approved by a Senate vote of ninety-six to three.
“When I got out of law school and began to teach,
women were only three percent of my students,” Ginsburg
said. “I never thought of the possibility of being
Ginsburg credits the support of her husband and family for
making it possible for her to reach the pinnacle of her
profession. She describes her husband as her “best
friend and biggest booster. A supportive husband who is
willing to share duties and responsibilities is a must .
. .,” she says, “for any woman who hopes to
combine marriage and a career.” An entry in her daughter’s
high school yearbook under “ambition” states:
“to see my mother appointed to the Supreme Court.”
Ginsburg has displayed independence in her rulings on the
High Court, which were neither as liberal as expected nor
as conservative as many liberals feared. She was respectful
of precedent and reluctant to involve the court in political
battles. She took a strong stand against mixing church and
state, opposing the creation of a special school district
to allow Hasidic Jews to run their own public school in
Kiryas Joel, New York. In one of her most important written
opinions in 1996, she ruled that state-funded Virginia Military
Institute must open its doors to women.
her spare time, Justice Ginsburg is an opera fan and likes
reading mysteries, watching old movies, and enjoys horseback
riding, water skiing, and golf. In 1994, she experienced
the dream of many opera fans. Along with Justice Antonin
Scalia, another opera lover, she donned a white-powdered
wig and played an extra in the Washington Opera.
an address to the American Jewish Committee after her Supreme
Court appointment, Justice Ginsburg said, “I am a
judge born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand
for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition.
I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of
the United States, I will have the strength and the courage
to remain constant in the service of that demand.”