Portrait Highlight - Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Updated: Mar 18



Ruth Bader Ginsburg (March 15, 1933 – September 18, 2020) American lawyer and jurist, and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.


Ruth was born in 1933, the second daughter of Celia (née Amster) and Nathan Bader. Her father was a Jewish emigrant from Odessa, Ukraine, at that time part of the Russian Empire, and her mother was born in New York to parents who came from Kraków, Poland, at that time part of Austria-Hungary. Although not devout, the Bader family belonged to East Midwood Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue, where Ruth learned tenets of the Jewish faith and gained familiarity with the Hebrew language. Bader was not allowed to have a bat mitzvah ceremony because of Orthodox restrictions on women reading from the Torah, which upset her.


Her mother Celia took an active role in her daughter's education, wanting Ruth to get a fuller education than she herself had been offered, and often took her to the library. Sadly, Celia was very ill with cancer throughout Ruth's high school years and died the day before Ruth's high school graduation.


Bader attended Cornell University where she met Martin D. Ginsburg at the age of seventeen. They married a month after Ruth graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in government on June 23rd, 1954 and their daughter was born in 1955. Their marriage was one of love and equality. On being asked about her marital relationship with her husband, Ruth once said, “If you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it. I had a life partner who thought my work was as important as his, and I think that made all the difference for me.”


In the fall of 1956, Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School, where she was one of only nine women in a class of about five hundred men and where the dean reportedly invited all the female law students to dinner at his family home and asked each of them in turn, including Ginsburg, "Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” When her husband took a job in New York City she transferred fully to Colombia Law School as that same dean had denied Ginsburg's request to complete her third year towards a Harvard law degree at Colombia. She became the first woman to be on two major law reviews: the Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review. In 1959, she earned her law degree at Columbia and tied for first in her class.


At the start of her legal career, Ginsburg encountered difficulty in finding employment due to her gender, but eventually found employment in the early 1960s with the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure. Whilst there she learned Swedish & co-authored a book with Swedish jurist Anders Bruzelius. Her work in Sweden, where women were 20 to 25 percent of all law students, profoundly influenced her thinking on gender equality. Bruzelius' daughter, Norwegian supreme court justice and President of the Norwegian Association for Women's Rights, Karin M. Bruzelius, herself a law student when Ginsburg worked with her father, said that "by getting close to my family, Ruth realised that one could live in a completely different way, that women could have a different lifestyle and legal position than what they had in the United States.”


She then became a professor of law (mainly civil procedure) at Rutgers Law School where she was informed she would be paid less than her male colleagues because she had a husband with a well-paid job. At the time Ginsburg entered academia, she was one of fewer than twenty female law professors in the United States. In 1970, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first law journal in the U.S. to focus exclusively on women's rights. She went on to teach civil procedure at Columbia Law School, where she became the first tenured woman and co-authored the first law school casebook on sex discrimination.


Ginsburg spent much of her legal career as an advocate for gender equality and women’s rights, winning many arguments before the Supreme Court. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where she served until her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993.


Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton and at the time was generally viewed as a moderate consensus-builder. She eventually became part of the liberal wing of the Court as the Court shifted to the right over time. Ginsburg was the first Jewish woman and the second woman to serve on the Court, after Sandra Day O’Connor. Between O'Connor's retirement in 2006 and the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor in 2009, she was the only female justice on the Supreme Court. During that time, Ginsburg became more forceful with her dissents.


Sandra Day O'Connor, Sonia Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan, October 1st, 2010. O'Connor is not wearing a robe because she was retired from the court when the picture was taken. Photo by Steve Petteway, photographer for the Supreme Court of the United States.


Ginsburg received attention in American popular culture for her passionate dissents in numerous cases, widely seen as reflecting paradigmatically liberal views of the law. She was dubbed "The Notorious R.B.G.", and she later embraced the moniker. Ginsburg had a collection of lace jabots from around the world. She said in 2014 she had a particular jabot she wore when issuing her dissents (black with gold embroidery and faceted stones) as well as another she wore when issuing majority opinions (crocheted yellow and cream with crystals), which was a gift from her law clerks. Her favourite jabot (woven with white beads) was from Cape Town, South Africa.


In 2018, Ginsburg expressed her support for the Me Too movement, which encourages women to speak up about their experiences with sexual harassment. She told an audience, "It's about time. For so long women were silent, thinking there was nothing you could do about it, but now the law is on the side of women, or men, who encounter harassment and that's a good thing.” She also reflected on her own experiences with gender discrimination and sexual harassment, including a time when a chemistry professor at Cornell unsuccessfully attempted to trade her exam answers for sex.


From 1999 onwards Ruth fought several battles with cancer, but throughout all the hospitalisations and treatments refused to give up, on life and on her job. When she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February 2020, she reiterated her position that she "would remain a member of the court as long as I can do the job full steam", adding that she remained fully able to do so. Sadly, Ginsburg died from complications of this particular cancer on September 18th, 2020, at the age of 87. She died on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and according to Rabbi Richard Jacobs, "One of the themes of Rosh Hashanah suggest that very righteous people would die at the very end of the year because they were needed until the very end”. After the announcement of her death, thousands of people gathered in front of the Supreme Court building to lay flowers, light candles, and leave messages.


Ruth Bader Ginsburg, pencil portrait on paper September 2020


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