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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice and Pioneer of Gender Equality, Dead at 87

The country mourns the death of a feminist icon — and prepares for Trump’s looming takeover of the high court

FILE-- Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her chambers in Washington, Aug. 23, 2013. Ginsburg on July 14, 2016, apologized for her recent remarks about the candidacy of Donald Trump, saying "On reflection, my recent remarks in response to press inquiries were ill-advised, and I regret making them." (Hilary Swift/The New York Times)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her Washington, D.C. chambers in 2013. The Supreme court justice died at the age of 87.

Todd Heisler/The New York Times/Redux

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice and trailblazing feminist icon who had fought off colon, lung and liver cancer, died Friday of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, the Supreme Court announced. She was 87.

“Our nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement. “We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her — a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”

“For nearly three decades, as the second woman ever to sit on the highest court in the land, she was a warrior for gender equality — someone who believed that equal justice under law only had meaning if it applied to every single American,” former President Barack Obama said in a statement.

“A powerful legal mind and a staunch advocate for gender equality, she has been a beacon of justice during her long and remarkable career,” former President Jimmy Carter wrote of the person he first appointed as a federal judge in 1980. “We join countless Americans in mourning the loss of a truly great woman.”

Her death presents President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the opportunity to make another appointment on the nation’s highest court, further solidifying its rightward drift and endangering cornerstone precedents like Roe v. Wade. In the days leading up to her death, Ginsburg reportedly told her granddaughter, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed,” according to NPR.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg cannot be called a liberal or a conservative,” President Bill Clinton said when he nominated her to the high court in 1993. “She has proved herself too thoughtful for such labels.” But by the end of her almost-three-decade tenure on the court, Ginsburg was widely adored as a patron saint of the progressive left, with legions of fans who paid homage with Halloween costumes, prayer candles, and innumerable Etsy knickknacks emblazoned with her face and nickname: “the Notorious R.B.G.”

A liberal stalwart through successive conservative-leaning majorities, Ginsburg will be remembered for her fiery dissents and work defending reproductive and civil rights, including those of the LGBTQ community. But it’s Ginsburg’s career before she took her place on the high court that may represent her longest-lasting legacy. As director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, which she co-founded, she was instrumental in establishing that equal protection under the law should extend to gender, winning five of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court on gender discrimination. 

Moritz v. Commissioner, the groundbreaking case she argued before a District Court in 1972, was the subject of the 2018 feature film On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones. “Everyone has sort of their own Ruth Bader Ginsburg, right?” said her nephew Daniel Stiepleman, who wrote the film’s screenplay. “For some people, she’s a superhero, and for some people, lest we forget, she’s a demon. But for me, she’s just Aunt Ruth. She’s a woman who changed the world, but she did [it] with her brain and she did it with her intellect, and she did it with the support of her family, and she did it with hard work. And we can all do it if we also have those things.” 

Joan Ruth Bader was born March 15th, 1933, to a Jewish family in working-class Brooklyn (she went by Ruth to avoid confusion with other Joans in her elementary school). Her mother, whom she credited with fostering her independence and self-sufficiency, died of cervical cancer before the future justice graduated high school. Ruth went on to Cornell University, where she met Martin Ginsburg, whom she described as “the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.” In 1954, they married soon after graduation; she took his last name and the initial that would eventually complete her “notorious” moniker.

Blazing a path through the post-war patriarchy, Ginsburg enrolled first at Harvard Law, where women were denied entrance to one of the libraries and where she was once asked by a dean, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” She became the first female member of the Harvard Law Review, but ultimately finished her legal studies at Columbia following a move to New York with her husband and young daughter, Jane. (They later also had a son, James.) Although she ranked at the top of her class, Ginsburg was denied a clerkship at the Supreme Court from Justice Felix Frankfurter, who inquired whether Ginsburg wore a skirt, adding, “I can’t stand girls in pants!”

Ginsburg’s climb to the high court wound through a District Court clerkship and a research project at Columbia that included a stint in Sweden, where women’s equality was years ahead of America’s. Hired as one of the first female law professors in the country, Ginsburg taught first at Rutgers University, where she founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, and later at Columbia Law School, where she became the school’s first tenured female professor. 

In 1972, Ginsburg founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, arguing six gender-discrimination cases before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976. A brilliant strategist, Ginsburg often chose cases in which male plaintiffs were discriminated against, believing that their plights would be easier for male justices to empathize with, and to show that gender discrimination harmed both men and women. Her well-plotted, incremental cases added up to a great leap in women’s equal protection under the Constitution. (Ginsburg used the term “gender” rather than “sex” to avoid “distracting associations” for the nine male justices.) In her first appearance before the high court, she famously resurrected a quote from 19th-century feminist Sarah Grimke: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”  

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks at an annual Women's History Month reception hosted by Pelosi in the U.S. capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks at an annual Women’s History Month reception hosted on Capitol Hill in 2015.

Allison Shelley/Getty Images

A fierce defender of reproductive rights, Ginsburg was not, however, a fan of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion. She believed the decision went too far, too fast — that a woman’s right to choose would have been better protected if it were established gradually through case law and legislation throughout the country; by putting it all on one case, she believed, it would galvanize opponents and give them a single target to focus on. “Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped, experience teaches, may prove unstable,” Ginsburg said in a 1993 speech at NYU Law School. She also lamented that Roe was based on a right to privacy rather than women’s equality. 

At the time of Roe, Ginsburg was litigating a different case of a pregnant Air Force captain who was told she would either have to have an abortion or leave her job. The circumstances of that case, Ginsburg believed, would have provided a firmer footing for women’s equal protection under the law and acted as a clearer illustration of the important underlying principle: that a woman should be allowed to decide the course of her life — including whether to have a child or not. (Pointing out the hypocrisy of how the U.S. government not only allowed but also encouraged abortion on military bases, when it served their purposes, was a bonus.)

Nominated by Jimmy Carter to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1980, Ginsburg served there with arch-conservatives like Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia. The latter, a fellow opera aficionado, would become a lifelong friend. She earned a reputation as more of a judicious moderate than a liberal firebrand. 

Ginsburg’s nomination to the Supreme Court came in 1993. After unlikely ally and Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch vociferously praised her, Bill Clinton put her name forward, calling her “the Thurgood Marshall of gender-equality law.” Ginsburg was confirmed by a bipartisan supermajority that would be inconceivable in our current tribalized age — 96-to-3, with the “nays” led by Sen. Jesse Helms, the notorious North Carolina bigot.

Ginsburg was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, after Sandra Day O’Connor, and the first Jewish justice since 1969. She served as the sole woman jurist from 2006, when O’Connor retired, to 2009, when Sonia Sotomayor joined the court. 

Recognized for her distinctive neck pieces nearly as much as her nimble mind, Ginsburg took to wearing her trademark frilly white jabot, she once explained, because “the standard robe is made for a man, because it has a place for the shirt to show, and the tie.… O’Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included as part of our robe something typical of a woman.” She eventually amassed an entire collection of collars, many with their own special significance, like the sequin-studded piece she wore on the days she delivered a dissent from the bench. 

Ginsburg slowly emerged as the superstar of the court’s liberal wing. She wrote the majority decision in the case that forced the all-male Virginia Military Institute to admit women, and helped marshal an 8-1 majority in a case that found a school’s strip-search of a young teen, suspected of hiding ibuprofen in her underwear, had violated her constitutional rights. “They have never been a 13-year-old girl,” Ginsburg said of her male counterparts after an exasperating round of oral arguments. “I didn’t think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood.”

But Ginsburg often shined brightest in dissent. She delivered a scathing dissent from the bench in the 2006 Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber pay-equity case, in which female plaintiff Lilly Ledbetter was denied decades of back wages because her discovery of being paid far less than her male counterparts happened after a statute of limitations had expired. “The court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination,” Ginsburg said. (Congress was moved to change the law, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill signed by President Obama.)

Supreme Court Justice nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg testifying before Sen. Judiciary Comm. in her Capitol Hill confirmation hearing, 1993.

Supreme Court Justice nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg testifying before Sen. Judiciary Comm. in her Capitol Hill confirmation hearing, 1993.

Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

It was the moral clarity of her dissent in the Voting Rights Act case Shelby v. Alabama in 2013 that spawned both a fan-art Tumblr and the nickname the Notorious R.B.G. — comparing the five-foot-one-inch justice to the late hip-hop giant Notorious B.I.G. 

The case challenged a provision in the Voting Rights Act that forced Southern states to get federal approval before making any changes to election practices. Ginsburg likened the majority’s decision — which removed the federal oversight and argued it was no longer necessary because voter suppression wasn’t the “flagrant” problem it was when the law first passed in 1965 — to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Ginsburg, who once professed she became a lawyer because “I have no talent in the arts,” was suddenly an American icon. In 2018 — the same year that On the Basis of Sex was released — Ginsburg was the subject of the hit documentary RBG. Her “dissent” jabot even inspired a Banana Republic knockoff, with sales benefiting the ACLU. She reveled in her nickname. “People ask me, ‘Don’t you feel uncomfortable, being with a name like Notorious B.I.G.?’ Why should I feel uncomfortable? We have a lot in common,” she said of Biggie, a fellow Brooklyn native. (Ginsburg’s embrace of black culture was not always so gracious. She infamously called Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games “terrible … dumb and disrespectful,” before apologizing that she’d been “inappropriately dismissive and harsh.”) 

Late in life, Ginsburg became an unlikely fitness influencer, following bouts with colon cancer (1999) and lung cancer (2018). Her strength-training regimen became legend; she returned to planking only weeks after a fall that broke three of her ribs in 2018. She was again treated for pancreatic cancer in August 2019. Her health scares would drum up speculation that she would step down from the bench, but she always soldiered on. “As long as I can do the job full steam, I will be here,” she said in 2018.

Ginsburg’s death gives Trump a chance to name a third, hard-right jurist to the highest court, completing a project that began with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings for Obama’s centrist nominee Merrick Garland. Trump is likely to select another reactionary in the mold of Clarence Thomas or Samuel Alito, placing precedents that have guided American jurisprudence for decades on the chopping block, and endangering rights that Ginsburg worked a lifetime to expand and protect. As terrifying as that prospect seems, Ginsburg herself might view circumstances differently. Reflecting, back in 2012, on the circuitous path that ultimately brought her to the high court, she said, “So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune.”

Until the very end, Ginsburg maintained the long view of history and a sense of optimism about the future. “I’ve seen great changes in my long life,” she said, accepting an award in 2019. “Though we haven’t reached nirvana, we have come a long way from the days when women couldn’t do things just because they were female.”

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