Incredible life of the woman who became the Notorious RBG: How Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Russian Jewish migrants became a trailblazer, the second woman to serve as Supreme Court Justice and a feminist pop culture icon
- Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn on March 15, 1933 to Russian Jewish immigrants, and her mother, a garment worker, encouraged her education
- She passed away Friday from complications of pancreatic cancer at 87
- She graduated top of her class at Cornell and met her husband Martin Ginsburg
- They had two children together and a unique partnership for the 1950s where Martin supported her law career and rise to the Supreme Court
- Despite her academic achievements, after graduation she was unable to land a Supreme Court clerkship because she was a woman
- Ginsburg argued landmark cases before the Supreme Court and became a judge for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980
- President Bill Clinton tapped her to become a Supreme Court Justice in 1993 to fill a seat left vacant for Justice Byron White
- In her 80s, Ginsburg became a pop culture icon, known as the ‘Notorious RBG,’ and had two films, one documentary and one biopic, centered on her life
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, pictured above in 2009, served for 27 years on the highest court of the land and was the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve as a Supreme Court Justice, a legal pioneer who broke barriers for women in law, a feminist icon to many, and the recent pop culture phenomenon known as the ‘Notorious RBG’ has died.
She passed away from complications of pancreatic cancer at the age of 87.
She served for 27 years on the highest court of the land and was the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court.
The collar-wearing octogenarian captured the public’s imagination – especially for those on the left who offered everything from kale to protective bubbles to later on wearing masks on social media to safeguard her continued tenure on the highest court in the land. The list of things that Ginsburg inspired is long: two films, memes that range from the ribald to inspirational, mountains of memorabilia from t-shirts to totes, cocktails, a book on her workout, and even tattoos.
But beyond the persona of the ‘Notorious RBG’ and her groundbreaking law career, Ginsburg was a mother of two, had two grandchildren, and was married to her husband Martin D. Ginsburg for 56 years until his death in 2010. She blazed a path for women in the legal profession, and at five-foot-one had become a towering figure in Washington, D.C.
Ginsburg battled several bouts of cancer after being first diagnosed in 2009.
Above, Martin D. Ginsburg (left) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (right) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1954. They were married for 56 years and met while they both attended Cornell University. After graduating, the couple moved to Fort Sill so Martin could do his military service
It was love at first Charles Dickens. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, (left), pictured here with her husband of 56 years, Martin D. Ginsburg (right). They met while college students at Cornell University during the 1950s. Ruth was impressed by Martin’s answer to a quiz question during a literature class taught by famous novelist Vladimir Nabokov, according to the biography called ‘Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life’ by Jane Sherron De Hart
The Ginsburg family, above, in a photo taken in 1958. Martin D. Ginsburg (left) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (right) with their daughter Jane C. Ginsburg (center). Jane C. Ginsburg followed in her mother’s steps and became a lawyer after graduating from Harvard Law School, and currently teaches at Columbia Law School
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (center) and Martin D. Ginsburg (standing behind her) married in 1954 after she graduated at the top of her class at Cornell. Their first child, Jane C. Ginsburg, was born in 1955, and their second child, James S. Ginsburg, in 1965. Shown here on Oct. 21, 1993 at the Supreme Court, are from left, son-in-law George T. Spera Jr and her daughter Jane C. Ginsburg, her husband Martin, and her son James S. Ginsburg. The judge’s grandchildren Clara Spera (left) and Paul Spera (right) are in front
A 2018 biography emphasized Marty’s ‘proto-feminism’ in the 1950s during a time where some women went to college to get their ‘MRS degree,’ meaning that it was a means to an end to find a spouse. Ginsburg said Martin was the ‘the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain,’ and they had a long-lasting marriage until Martin died in 2010 from cancer at the age of 78. They are pictured here at a gala opening night dinner after a Washington Opera performance on October 21, 2000
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her engagement photo taken in December 1953
Born on March 15, 1933 in Brooklyn, Joan Ruth Bader was the second daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Celia and Nathan Bader. Her older sister, who would later die at aged six from meningitis, nicknamed her ‘Kiki’ for apparently being ‘a kicky baby.’ Her mother, Celia, a garment factory worker, would encourage Ruth – she went by her middle name to distinguish herself from the other Joans in her Brooklyn class – to attain a higher level of education than she did.
‘My mother told me two things constantly. One was to be a lady, and the other was to be independent. The study of law was unusual for women of my generation. For most girls growing up in the ’40s, the most important degree was not your BA, but your MRS,’ she recalled to the ACLU, referring to the idea that women went to college to land a man, get married and become a missus – not to get a bachelor’s degree.
Her mother died from cancer right before Ginsburg graduated from high school.
In 1950, Ginsburg started attending Cornell University where she would meet her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, during a literature class taught by famous novelist Vladimir Nabokov, according to the biography called ‘Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life’ by Jane Sherron De Hart.
Martin was able to answer Nabokov’s quiz question about Charles Dickens, and Ginsburg was smitten, later saying that Martin was the ‘the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.’
‘Meeting Marty was by far the most fortunate thing that ever happened to me,’ Ginsburg said in one of the films about her, the documentary ‘RBG.’ ‘Marty was a man blessed with a wonderful sense of humor. I tend to be rather sober.’
At aged 21, Ginsburg, who majored in government, graduated at the top of her class in 1954 at Cornell and married Martin soon after. Their first child, Jane C. Ginsburg, was born on July 21, 1955. Due to Martin’s military service, they moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
‘After dinner, the newlyweds often spent their evenings reading aloud to each other from Pepys, Tolstoy, Dickens and even Spinoza, although the philosopher was tougher fare,’ De Hart wrote, according to a Washington Post article about the biography.
De Hart emphasized Marty’s ‘proto-feminism’ in the 1950s, and the couple decided they both would pursue careers. After two years in Oklahoma, Ginsburg and Martin went to Harvard Law School in 1956. Women had only started being admitted to the law school six years earlier, and Ginsburg was one of nine women in a class of about 500.
Martin graduated from Harvard in 1958 and practiced tax law in New York. Ginsburg switched schools, attending Columbia Law School to be close to her husband. In 1959, she graduated with her law degree, a Juris Doctor, from Columbia, and was tied for first in her class.
A young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, pictured here in 1977, who broke barriers in the legal profession to become the second woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice
Despite the credentials, Ginsburg, now 26, was still a woman and she had a hard time finding a place at a law firm after graduation.
‘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,’ Ginsburg said during the documentary series, ‘Makers: Women Who Make America.’
Ginsburg was also rejected for a Supreme Court clerkship due to being a woman. But there were successes as well: she was the first female member of the Harvard Law Review and was elected to the Columbia Law Review as well. Eventually, Ginsburg landed a clerkship for a judge of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.
After two years with the Southern District, Ginsburg was a research associate and associate director for the Project of International Procedure at Columbia Law School. She also learned Swedish, and conducted research in Sweden for a book that she co-authored on civil procedure in the country.
After serving as a judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for 13 years, Ginsburg was nominated by President Bill Clinton to Supreme Court after Justice Byron White announced he was retiring. Clinton (left) is shaking Ginsburg’s hand during the announcement in the Rose Garden at the White House on June 14, 1993
‘The announcement of this vacancy,’ Clinton said on June 14, 1993, ‘brought forth a unique outpouring of support for distinguished Americans on Judge Ginsburg’s behalf. What caused that outpouring is the essential quality of the judge herself: her deep respect for others and her willingness to subvert self-interest to the interest of our people and their institutions.’ Ginsburg (pictured) at the announcement ceremony at the White House’s Rose Garden
In 1963, she started teaching at Rutgers University School of Law when there were few female law professors. Also during this time, she and Martin had their second child, James S. Ginsburg, on September 8, 1965. She taught at Rutgers until 1972 and then moved to Columbia Law School, where, at aged 39, she was the first woman put on a tenure track.
She taught at Columbia for eight years, co-authored a law school book, and also worked as general counsel for the ACLU, where she argued several hundred gender discrimination cases, six of which were before the Supreme Court.
By 1980, Ginsburg, then 47, was selected to be a judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is often a springboard to the Supreme Court. After thirteen years as a judge on that court, President Bill Clinton nominated the 60-year-old Ginsburg for the Supreme Court after Justice Byron White said he was retiring.
‘The announcement of this vacancy,’ Clinton said on June 14, 1993, according to a YouTube video courtesy of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, ‘brought forth a unique outpouring of support for distinguished Americans on Judge Ginsburg’s behalf. What caused that outpouring is the essential quality of the judge herself: her deep respect for others and her willingness to subvert self-interest to the interest of our people and their institutions.’
At the announcement, Ginsburg said: ‘Most closely, I have been aided by my life’s partner, Martin D. Ginsburg, who has been, since our teenage years, my best friend and biggest booster.’
On August 4, 1993, the US Senate confirmed her by a vote of 96 to 3, the New York Times reported. She was sworn in as a justice on August 10, 1993.
Later in October 1993, a photo shows Ginsburg and her family at the court. Her daughter, Jane C. Ginsburg, followed in her footsteps, graduating from Harvard Law School, and currently teaches at Columbia Law School. She married George T. Spera Jr and they have two children together: Paul Spera, who is an actor, and Clara Spera, who is also a lawyer and clerked for the US District of the Southern District of New York.
With a vote of 96 to 3, the US Senate approved Ginsburg’s nomination to the Supreme Court. She was confirmed, on August 3, 1993, to the position vacated by retiring Associate Justice Byron White. President Bill Clinton (left), who nominated Ginsburg (right), is seen here walking with her on the White House colonnade
On August 10, 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice – the second woman appointed to the court. Pictured above is Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist (right) swearing Ginsburg (with arm raised) in while her husband Martin D. Ginsburg (second from right) and President Bill Clinton (left) look on
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (left) with her husband Martin D. Ginsburg (right). At the announcement for her nomination to the Supreme Court on on June 14, 1993, Ginsburg said: ‘Most closely, I have been aided by my life’s partner, Martin D. Ginsburg, who has been, since our teenage years, my best friend and biggest booster’
Jane Sherron De Hart, in her book, ‘Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life,’ emphasized the ‘proto-feminism’ of Martin D. Ginsburg (left) in the 1950s, and the couple decided they both would pursue careers. Both Ruth Bader Ginsburg (right) and Martin went to Harvard Law School in 1956. Women had only started being admitted to the law school six years earlier, and Ginsburg was one of nine women in a class of about 500
Ginsburg told the New Republic that her grandchildren loved the fact that she had become an Internet sensation.
‘At my advanced age – I’m now an octogenarian – I’m constantly amazed by the number of people who want to take my picture,’ she said in 2014.
Not only did people want their photo taken, an interest in her workout also took hold. In her eighties, Ginsburg would do exercises such as a wall squat with a yoga ball. So much so that her trainer of many years, Bryant Johnson, wrote the book ‘The RBG Workout.’
When Ginsburg joined the court in 1993, Sandra Day O’Connor had already been on it since 1981. Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, nominated by President Ronald Reagan. Ginsburg called O’Connor a mentor, and Ginsburg told The Washington Post that they ‘thought it would be appropriate if we included as part of our robe something typical of a woman.
‘So I have many, many collars.’
Fans of Ginsburg have parsed her collars, which were sometimes lace, gold embellished and beaded. One was dubbed ‘the dissenter.’
A feminist icon to many, Ginsburg told ‘Makers,’ the documentary series, that feminism is ‘that notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers – manmade barriers, certainly not heaven sent.’
After O’Connor retired in early 2006, Ginsburg was the only woman on the court until Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed on August 8, 2009. Ginsburg was also close to conservative justice Antonin Scalia until his death in February 2016.
‘We care about this institution more than our individual egos and we are all devoted to keeping the Supreme Court in the place that it is, as a co-equal third branch of government and I think a model for the world in the collegiality and independence of judges,’ Ginsburg said on C-SPAN.
In 2015, Ginsburg told MSNBC how she would liked to be remembered.
‘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. To do something, as my colleague David Souter would say, outside myself. ‘Cause I’ve gotten much more satisfaction for the things that I’ve done for which I was not paid.’
Before becoming the second woman to serve on the highest court in the land, Ginsburg argued several hundred cases – six of which were before the Supreme Court – of gender discrimination while working as the general counsel for the ACLU. She is pictured here at her chambers at the Supreme Court on August 7, 2002
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, pictured at the gym during the 2018 documentary, ‘RBG.’ Ginsburg had become a pop culture sensation in her 80s, and an interest in her workout took hold. So much so that her trainer of many years, Bryant Johnson, wrote the book ‘The RBG Workout.’ Above, The octogenarian would do exercises such as a wall squat with a yoga ball
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (right) and Stephen Colbert, (left) work out on his show. Ginsburg became known as the ‘Notorious RBG’ during her 80s and captured the public’s imagination
One of the many many ‘Notorious RBG’ memes that were created in honor of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The list of things that Ginsburg inspired is long: two films, mountains of memorabilia from t-shirts to totes, cocktails, a book on her workout, and even tattoos
Above, Kate McKinnon (left) portrays Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during Weekend Update on a November 12, 2016 episode of ‘Saturday Night Live’ with fellow castmates Colin Jost (center) and Michael Che (right)