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Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Her Life, Leadership and Legacy

by Jennifer Bab on September 29, 2020

A symbol for women's rights/equal rights, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is responsible for revolutionary changes for all people seeking equal treatment under the law.  She was one of our first Moxie Chic t-shirt designs because she exemplifies the term moxie in spades. This remarkable legend of our time passed away on September 18th, but has left behind so much for us to appreciate and build upon:  a more just and equitable society, a road map for all disenfranchised peoples to continue to achieve equality and a role model for all girls, no matter what their dreams or pursuits. 


Ruth Bader Ginsburg contributed to a lot of firsts over her illustrious legal and judicial career .  . . and now leaves us being the first woman (and Jewish person) to lie in state at the US Capitol Building. 


Among other notable achievements, because of RBG:

  • State funded schools have to admit women (US vs. Virginia).
  • Women can sign mortgages, have bank accounts and get loans without a male co-signer (Equal Credit Opportunity Act)
  • Women are closer to equal pay than they were before (her strong dissents on opinions such as Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co ultimately led to Congress strengthening laws for equal protections on pay).
  • Women have retained the right to choose. 
  • Pregnant women’s rights are protected.
  • Women are required to serve on juries.
  • Same-sex marriage is legal. (Through her broad gender advocacy battles, she set the stage and made inroads for gender identity and sexual orientation equality).

RBG was able to accomplish these trailblazing changes because she was brilliant, yes, but also because she worked tirelessly and was fierce in character and possessed great courage, confidence, spirit and grit. She was the definition of moxie. She is the ultimate shero and herstory shows why:


When RBG was only 14 months old, her big sister (then six) died of Meningitis; at the outset, deep loss and overcoming hardship was part of her family picture. RBG had an incredibly close relationship with her mom who inspired her to read, question and debate, to work hard and strive for excellence. RBG drew from her influence always:


"My mother told me two things constantly. One was to be a lady, and the other was to be independent.”


The day before RBG’s high school graduation (she was valedictorian), her beloved mother -- who struggled with cancer during Ruth’s high school years -- passed away. This horrible and untimely loss fueled Ruth’s energy to lead a full, productive life, and prioritize education and family. One of RBG’s favorite statements was “choose life” and she certainly did that, forging ahead in her own life despite the obstacles and always working to be her best self:


“I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability."


Ruth went to Cornell where she met her husband Marty (they were married right after graduating). In 1955 she gave birth to their first child (while working for the Social Security Administration) and was demoted as a result. The following year in 1956, she joined Marty who was in his second year at Harvard Law; Ruth was one of nine girls in a class of 500. 


When Marty was diagnosed with cancer, RBG took all of his classes in addition to her own, juggling caring for her sick husband and her baby. She Was the first female law student to make Harvard Law Review despite the heavy double course load and family responsibilities. In order to keep her family intact, she graduated from Columbia Law School because the then Dean of Harvard Law would not let her finish her legal training in NYC where Marty was to start work after graduation. At Columbia, she was also on Law Review and graduated first in her class. 


After law school and despite her remarkable track record, she was rejected by 12 law firms. Unable to get a law firm job, she ultimately landed a clerkship in the Southern District of New York, then worked for Columbia Law School and after, became a law professor at Rutgers. In 1972, she co-founded the ACLU’s Women’s Right’s Project and that same year became the first woman to achieve tenure at Columbia Law School. 


“You think about what would have happened ... Suppose I had gotten a job as a permanent associate. Probably I would have climbed up the ladder and today I would be a retired partner. So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great good fortune.”


RBG did not set out to become a civil rights activist, but her life experiences led her to this naturally.  


"A gender line ... helps to keep women not on a pedestal, but in a cage."


She was a champion for women’s rights, in particular, reflected in her thoughts on a women’s right to choose:


"This is something central to a woman's life, to her dignity. It's a decision that she must make for herself. And when government controls that decision for her, she's being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices."


RBG believed that men and women are equal and should be treated as such; she believed that traditional roles ascribed to each sex were societal constructs only.


"Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation."

 

"Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn't be that women are the exception."


She took on cases often advocating for men who were not offered equal protection under the law -- this unique position enabled her to make inroads for women and other disenfranchised people under the same principles. 


“Women's rights are an essential part of the overall human rights agenda, trained on the equal dignity and ability to live in freedom all people should enjoy."


As such, she believed in and fought for an equal society in all respects. 


"I ... try to teach through my opinions, through my speeches, how wrong it is to judge people on the basis of what they look like, color of their skin, whether they’re men or women."


RBG tackled one lawsuit at a time, with each case moving one step closer to realizing the dream of equality.  She was patient and persevered.


 "Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time."


RBG was rarely -- if ever -- off balance; she was poised, focused, diligent, disciplined and deliberate.


Don't be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, resentment. These just zap energy and waste time." 


"Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one's ability to persuade."


She believed it was her duty to make a difference for others. 


 "If you want to be a true professional, do something outside yourself."


“I’ve gotten much more satisfaction for the things that I’ve done for which I was not paid."


Beyond her revolutionary vision and achievements in creating a more equal society, she was very personable and empathic and established lifelong connections with others; often her closest friends had different ideological ideas (e.g., she was best friends with Justice Scalia despite their almost always opposing legal viewpoints).

"I'm a very strong believer in listening and learning from others."


"You can disagree without being disagreeable."


She was an eternal optimist and positively positive -- in life generally as seen in her turning each obstacle into an advantage, and about our government, specifically -- always believing in and upholding our constitution and our legal system.


“Dissents speak to a future age.  . . the greatest dissents do become court opinions.”


“I’m dejected, but only momentarily, when I can’t get the fifth vote for something I think is very important. But then you go on to the next challenge and give it your all. You know these important issues are not going to go away. They are going to come back again and again. There’ll be another time, another day.”


She had a knack for being able to get her points across and be heard. 

"Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you."


Among her secrets enabling her to be so even-tempered and diplomatic — at home and work— were to ignore particularly painful comments, exercise balance and keep expectations in check:


"When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out."


"In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf."


"You can't have it all, all at once. Who—man or woman—has it all, all at once? Over my lifespan I think I have had it all. But in different periods of time things were rough. And if you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it.”


For these and so many more reasons, Justice Ginsburg was a remarkable, brilliant, bold, first-rate modern legend and inspiration. May she REST IN POWER. May her memory be for a blessing and may she continue to inspire generations to come.
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