Pioneering lawyer, Supreme Court Justice, and pop culture icon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg redefined gender equality through vision, persistence, precision, and dissent. This collection of reflections on her life and work honors her tremendous legacy as a lawyer, judge, feminist, and Jew.
Please add your memories in the comments at the bottom.
TributesDahlia Lithwick, senior editor and legal commentator at Slate
Martha Minow, former Dean of Harvard Law School
Mirah Curzer, past co-chair of the Sex and Law Committee at the NYC Bar Association
Karla Goldman, director of University of Michigan’s Jewish Communal Leadership Program
Marcia Greenberger, founder of the National Women’s Law Center
Ariela Migdal, lawyer at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project from 2007-2015
Linda Hirshman, author of Sisters in Law
Drew Tulumello, partner in the Washington office of Gibson Dunn
Allison Lauterbach Dale, legal history scholar and Privacy Counsel at LinkedIn.
Nikki Horberg Decter, labor lawyer
Julie B. Rubenstein, lawyer in Washington, DC
Jed Handelsman Shugerman, professor at Fordham Law School
Lacey Schwartz Delgado, filmmaker
Much has been made, and much more will be made, of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s quintessentially Jewish life, and her loss at age 87, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, seals the truth of her quintessentially Jewish death. Ginsburg’s life was a testament to the words she had framed in her chambers: the admonition that “Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” although her vision of what justice meant was shaped, even in childhood and adolescence, by her status as an outsider. She was a brilliant and studious girl in a world that prized those qualities in boys. She served as her summer camp’s volunteer lay “rabbi” and yet was told she could not say kaddish when her mother died tragically just as Ruth was graduating high school. She was one of nine women in a class of hundreds of men at Harvard Law School, and she had to explain to then-Dean Erwin Griswold why a woman was taking one of those precious spots from a man. She had to hide her second pregnancy when she was teaching at Rutgers, and then she had to devote years to patiently explaining to panels of male jurists that women didn’t want to be cosseted, paid for, and sidelined; they wanted to design their own lives, free of legal regimes that stereotyped them as dependents or weak. And throughout decades of fighting for equality and dignity for women, the disabled, LGBTQ, minority, and other Americans, she spoke with an almost steely reserve and civility, because her mother had raised her to “be a lady.”
I mention the fact of RBG’s “double life” because while it’s easy to find in Ginsburg’s jurisprudence a fundamentally Jewish sensibility—a dedication to text, a Talmudic-like devotion to detail, a deep conviction in the power of dissent—I believe her jurisprudence is shot through with another fundamentally Jewish value: a deep concern for the other, the outsider, the weak, and the vulnerable. Ginsberg spoke often about family car trips in her girlhood, when she would see signs saying, “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.” She knew that Jews in America were drawn to the legal profession because of discrimination, and also that even within the legal profession, Jews were excluded from some fields. In her writing, whether she is discussing voting rights, or gender, or disability, or yes, religion, one is deeply aware of what it meant to her to live a split-screen life, in which at every turn she was both on the inside, and the outside, but never quite a free inhabitant of every part of the American Dream, even as her own career embodied it. In 2014 she explained why she assigned an important dissent in a religion case to Elena Kagan: “She was an outsider, even in her own religion in that she had to fight to be an insider. She had to fight to be the first girl bat mitzvahed in her orthodox synagogue… I think she has that sensitivity, it’s something my colleagues don’t really get because they haven’t been in that situation.”
To be an outsider and an insider is also a quintessentially Jewish sensibility, even in RBG’s beloved America. To always feel at least a vestigial sense of being a stranger in a strange land, whether it was the land of men, the land of a Christian white America, the land of the law, is to always hear two voices at once, which may explain why RBG loved opera as she did. Ginsburg worked her entire life to expand the scope of who was allowed to be American, and what equality would mean for groups that had been locked out of the dream. That didn’t merely stem from her youthful Jewish understanding of justice, but from a lifelong Jewish experience of being both welcome and unwelcome in the many facets of the land she called home.
Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor and legal commentator at Slate and host of the Amicus podcast.
Very few individuals in history come close to the extraordinary and significant role played by Justice Ginsburg in the pursuit of justice before she joined the bench. She would be a landmark figure just by being the first woman to earn a tenured faculty post at Columbia Law School. And she made history as director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, argued landmark cases on gender equality before the US Supreme Court—brilliantly crafting successful challenges to the system of legally enforced gender roles that limited opportunities for both women and men. With vision and brilliance, she earned a place in the history books and on the honor roll of civil rights heroes.
Then, as judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, she demonstrated the highest level of legal craft in crucial decisions. And as Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, she produced a body of superbly crafted opinions, building on precedent while always demonstrating that law is meant to serve justice for real people.
When she was a student at Harvard Law School, she faced a class of over 500 men and only seven other women. She juggled her roles as wife and mother with her work as a law student and faced a dean who chided female students for taking the places of qualified men. She excelled. She joined the Harvard Law Review. When her husband, fellow law student Martin Ginsburg, was diagnosed with cancer, she took notes for him and helped him recover. And when the Harvard Dean refused her request to earn her degree while moving to New York with her family and completing her final year of schooling at Columbia Law School, she transferred there and promptly rose to the top of the class. She gently but rightly resisted the requests of later Harvard Law School deans to accept a tardy degree from Harvard Law School. Finally, in 2011, she received a Harvard degree—an honorary doctorate, the university’s highest academic honor.
I am one of countless people she directly encouraged and deeply inspired to use reason and argument in service of justice and humanity. Justice Ginsburg also showed that it is possible to build deep and meaningful friendships with people despite severe disagreements. At this time of deep social and political divisions, there is much to learn from her life and her commitments. Above all, she changed the lives of millions as a lawyer and as a jurist by dismantling barriers to employment, education, and roles in families and society based solely on gender—and showed how law can, with persistence and vision, be a tool to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.
Martha Minow is the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and former Dean of Harvard Law School. She was a founding Board member of the Jewish Women’s Archive.
For me, as a lawyer, as a woman, and as a Jew, it is impossible to overstate how large Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg looms as an inspiration. Her life’s work, and the Jewish values she always followed, are the true North to which I look in times of uncertainty.
It has been one of the great honors of my career to carry on one small piece of Justice Ginsburg’s legacy as co-chair of the same committee she chaired at the New York City Bar Association, the Sex and Law Committee. Today, as under Justice Ginsburg’s leadership, the Committee continues to work for gender equality by harnessing the power of the New York legal community to advocate for necessary reforms.
I am inspired, not by only Justice Ginsburg’s dedication to the causes she believed in, but by the way she achieved her goals. In fighting for gender equality, she frequently represented male plaintiffs, because their claims laid bare the irrationality and injustice of discrimination based on sex. As she famously said, “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Justice Ginsburg was a believer in incremental change to achieve truly radical goals. She worried that Roe v. Wade came too soon, and stood on too flimsy a constitutional footing to endure the sustained and concerted attacks to which it has been subjected. And she paid attention to civil procedure, the unglamorous but immensely important rules that govern how the courts deliver justice.
But her cautious approach should not obscure her consistent belief in truly radical change. The great project of her life was no less than to erase the distinction between men and women under the law and clear the legal landscapes of all obstacles to full gender equality—in the home, the workforce, and everywhere else. In one of her most famous statements, she said, “People ask me, ‘When will you be satisfied with the number of women on the Court?’ When there are nine.”
It was the great tragedy of her life and ours that she came to be known and will be remembered as the great dissenter. She should have been Chief Justice, writing majority opinions in cases that moved American jurisprudence forward in great leaps and bounds. What a waste, to have someone of her caliber and character on the Court, and for her to be in the minority.
But it was in that role that she became an icon: “Notorious RBG,” the symbol of the resistance. The persuasive power and clear reasoning of her dissents have ignited official action, such as the passage of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay act after her dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. called on Congress to overrule the Court’s decision, and lay the groundwork for the progressive jurisprudence of the future.
In the last years of her career, Justice Ginsburg took on a very different role than when, as a young lawyer, she argued cases that radically and permanently transformed the American legal landscape. Having begun her career leading the charge for gender equality, she ended it by holding the line—and, too often, defending the retreat. It is the less glorious role to play, but because of that, the more noble. Because of her, we live to fight another day.
Today, her dissents are not law. But as Justice Ginsburg herself said, “Dissents speak to a future age…the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that's the dissenter's hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”
We owe Justice Ginsburg a great debt, for the great strides she took in advancing progressive causes, and for the bold vision she laid out as a roadmap for the future. May we live to see the future for which she wrote.
Baruch Dayan HaEmet. “Blessed is the true judge.”
Mirah Curzer is an attorney in New York City and the immediate past co-chair of the Sex and Law Committee at the New York City Bar Association. She attended NYU Law School and Amherst College, and currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Rabbi Joshua Stanton, and their son, Jonah.
Although I once shook Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s hand, I, like most of us, mainly admired her from afar. Still, the insight gained from that one occasion, sixteen years ago, has remained with me. In October 2004, the Jewish Women’s Archive, together with the Lions of Judah (the women’s philanthropy arm of what is now the Jewish Federations of North America), sponsored a celebration of “350 Years of Jewish Women’s Activism” at the Library of Congress. Associate Justice Ginsburg was the keynote speaker.
As JWA’s historian in residence at that time, I was asked to write an introduction to be read by one of the Lion of Judah lay leaders. I worked hard to capture in a few words what—even before she became known as the Notorious RBG—had already made her such an inspiring and indispensable icon for American Jewish women. What struck me then, as now, was how perfectly Ginsburg’s story captured the American narrative that so many of us cherish and want to believe in. Propelled by access to fine public schools and free tuition at Cornell, navigating numerous exclusions as a woman, a mother, and a Jew, she ultimately found her way to the top of her profession. As she did so, she pushed the society that both nurtured and limited her to change in a way that expanded its tradition of justice. She never stopped believing in or working for a society that could be for all Americans what it had been for her, a place where, comparing her experience to that of her mother, she noted, “the difference between a New York City garment district bookkeeper and a Supreme Court Justice” was “one generation.” (All quotes are from Ginsburg’s remarks that evening or, as below, from the introduction I wrote for that event.)
At the heart of this profile, I noted that her career illustrated how she was able “through diligence, brilliance and luck…[to] overcome the many barriers set before her.”
As the event began, I was excited to see the community leader share my introduction with the hundreds of women in the audience. I noticed, however, that when it came to the core phrase noted above, she chose to omit the word “luck.” While this seemed to me a problematic emendation, I understood that the introducer might feel that it would have sounded presumptuous for her to suggest that RBG needed luck to have gotten where she did.
What became memorable about this dialectic between me as the writer and she as the reader of the introduction, however, was what followed, as Justice Ginsburg began her own remarks. “That was a grand introduction,” she opened, “there was just one thing that was understated and that is it took more than a little bit of mazel to get me where I am today.” [Mazel means luck. While the word is similar in Hebrew and Yiddish, Ginsburg used the Yiddish inflection.] In the end, what was striking to me was not that the introducer had redacted the word “luck,” but that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had noticed its absence and corrected the omission.
Of course, this reflected her humility and resistance to the aggrandizing that others projected upon her. But it also illustrated her active awareness of the conditionality and contingent circumstances that shape each of our experiences. She entered the American educational system at a time when many like her, not already economically privileged, were still able to access its highest levels. She grew to adulthood as the many exclusions still in place yielded just enough to allow her a seat at the table, whether at Harvard Law School, Rutgers University School of Law, or the ACLU. Likewise, she began her advocacy work at a moment that society was able to bend in the face of her relentless pursuit of justice. Her husband and colleagues worked hard to bring her to the attention of Bill Clinton who was making a Supreme Court appointment in 1993, but she knew there was no guarantee that Clinton would recognize or appreciate the tenor or nature of her experience or be willing to overlook the years it took to accumulate them, making her a relatively old newbie on the Supreme Court bench.
As we look back at the estimable career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, like Thurgood Marshall, first changed our basic understanding of American civil rights and then presided over their implementation, it may seem that her rise to iconic status was inevitable. But at a moment when the achievements of both these pioneers for equal justice seem increasingly tenuous and fraught, it’s important to remember that none of this is inevitable or set in stone. We will have to find the possibilities present in this moment and work with Ruth Bader Ginsburg-like devotion so that when moments of opportunity and luck swing our way, we will collectively be ready to change the world, like she did.
Karla Goldman is the Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan where she directs the Jewish Communal Leadership Program and teaches in Judaic Studies. She is the former Historian in Residence at the Jewish Women’s Archive and a past co-chair of JWA’s Board.
In 1972, I became the first Washington, DC-based lawyer working full time on women’s rights. Hired by a public interest legal organization, the Center for Law and Social Policy, to start a Women’s Rights Project, inspiration and guidance came from Ruth Bader Ginsburg from the start. After all, she founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and won the first Supreme Court decision ever striking down a government practice that discriminated on the basis of sex in 1971, just the year before. Our Center grew into the National Women’s Law Center, where I stepped down as co-President in 2017, and during those 45 years had the extraordinary opportunity to work with and be inspired by her. Two examples among many I could tell follow.
In 1976, the Supreme Court held that the Title VII federal statutory ban against sex discrimination in employment did not reach employers’ practices and policies that discriminate on the basis of pregnancy. A devastating ruling to women’s legal protection against discrimination, a nationwide coalition formed to press Congress to amend Title VII to explicitly state that its ban on sex discrimination included a ban on discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was enacted. I had the chance to work with Ruth Bader Ginsburg who was then at the ACLU in the effort, and could see up close her brilliance, ability to see the big picture but also pay attention to every detail to be sure the strongest bill we could get would pass.
A second example took place after she had become Justice Ginsburg and wrote a powerful dissent in the Lilly Ledbetter v Goodyear Tire Co. case, after a 5–4 majority of the Court adopted a narrow reading of Title VII’s ability to protect against pay discrimination. She took the occasion to read her dissent from the bench, not a usual occurrence. The press in the courtroom then understood and could report to the public on why what seemed like a technicality actually dramatically undermined women’s ability to secure equal pay in the real world and why Congress needed to heed her call to pass a statute fixing the problem. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed with great public support and became the first bill President Obama signed into law after his election. Having worked to pass the legislation, I knew all too well how important Justice Ginsburg’s ringing dissent was, and her willingness to read it aloud from the bench. The fitting closure to this case happened as a result of Lilly Ledbetter letting me know how much she wanted to meet Justice Ginsburg. I arranged a visit with the Justice in her chambers, where she was so very kind and gracious. Lilly speaks often of how much that meeting meant to her, as it did to me, I might add.
Justice Ginsburg combined extraordinary intellect, commitment to principle, hard work, and strategic judgment with great heart. We are all the better and stronger for her life and her work.
Marcia Greenberger is the founder of the National Women’s Law Center in 1972, and its Co-President until she stepped down in 2017. She has handled precedent-setting cases and major legislation advancing the rights of women and girls.
When I first met Justice Ginsburg in 2004, she served me tea and a slice of lemon cake that her husband Marty had baked. I was clerking for Justice Stephen Breyer, and the tradition was for each Justice to have lunch with each set of clerks for the other Justices. Justice Ginsburg’s minhag (the Jewish word for tradition) was to serve the other Justices’ clerks tea and cake in her chambers. She emphasized that Marty did all the baking and supported her career on the Court. I could relate—although I love to bake, I didn’t get any baking done that year, as I juggled a busy Supreme Court clerkship with being a new mother to my daughter, who was four months old when I started working at the Court. When I showed up on my first day of work, a fellow clerk who ran into me at the security entrance asked me why I was carrying a big machine into the Court—it was a breast pump, for expressing milk in the Supreme Court bathrooms several times a day. There is no way I could have made it through that intensive year without my husband’s support and his primary care for our daughter. We were too exhausted and exhilarated to consider that it was Justice Ginsburg’s trailblazing model that made it possible for me to even attempt working at the Supreme Court while I had a young baby, or for my husband to be her primary caregiver that year.
I didn’t think about Justice Ginsburg very much after my term at the Court ended until 2007, when I took a job at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, which Justice Ginsburg had founded in 1972. Justice Ginsburg had used the Women’s Rights Project as the platform from which she launched her carefully plotted attacks on the laws and institutions that codified gender stereotypes and limited women’s and men’s abilities to be full people with both professional and caregiving responsibilities. In my early years at the Women’s Rights Project, I didn’t see my cases as having an obvious link to Justice Ginsburg’s legacy. My boss, Women’s Rights Project Director Lenora Lapidus, was interested in the ways in which sex discrimination intersected with racism, anti-immigrant practices, and other forms of discrimination to keep poor women and women of color from achieving equality. Thus, my early projects included a case against a jail that forced a Muslim client to remove her head covering, a case on behalf of seasonal Mexican migrant workers in North Carolina’s seafood industry who were given worse work than their male counterparts, and a case on behalf of women and men of color who suffered discrimination while working as custodians in the sprawling New York City public school system.
That changed in 2012, when I reconnected with Justice Ginsburg and, in a way, stepped into both her and Lenora’s shoes. In February of that year, Lenora asked me to moderate a panel called “Sex Discrimination Litigation in the 1970s” at a Columbia Law School event celebrating the 40 year anniversary of Ginsburg founding the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and starting to teach at Columbia. Despite my nervousness about moderating a panel of veteran women litigators who had brought the best known cases of the 1970s, the event was wonderful. I remember that Justice Ginsburg gave me a “blessing” during her thank-you’s: She said to me, “You’ve got what it takes.” To do what? I wanted to ask.
Later that year, the “what” became clear, when Lenora and I, along with our colleagues, brought a groundbreaking case in the tradition of Justice Ginsburg against the Pentagon. We represented four military servicewomen challenging the ban on women serving in ground combat units. Decades after Justice Ginsburg fought the discrimination that affected military women like Air Force Officer Sharron Frontiero (Ginsburg’s first argument before the Supreme Court), and against military policies discriminating against pregnant women, we brought a case on behalf of women veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our clients sought to strike down the so-called Combat Exclusion Policy, the last remnant of the formal legal sex discrimination that Ginsburg had dismantled. The lawsuit wasn’t easy to put together—on the day we sued, we were working out of a temporary workspace, because the ACLU’s offices had been damaged during Hurricane Sandy. Maintaining “work-life” balance was trickier than ever—by then I had three young children. But in bringing that case, I felt that I returned to the heartland of Justice Ginsburg’s legacy. In the years to come, until I left the ACLU in 2015, Lenora, our colleagues, and I brought more cases that fell squarely within Justice Ginsburg’s mission, including cases challenging how pregnant women are treated on the job and cases attacking pay discrimination. And I recognized what Lenora had seen all along—that every single case we brought built on what Ginsburg had tried to do at the ACLU, by extending the ideal of equality and dignity to all women and men.
Having been a lawyer now for nineteen years and a mom for seventeen, I try to carry the values of Justice Ginsburg, and of my friend and mentor Lenora (who died in 2019), with me every day. Channeling Justice Ginsburg, my husband and I attempt the controlled chaos of carrying on two meaningful careers while raising three fascinating human beings. Channeling Lenora, I try to focus on how systems deprive the most vulnerable members of society of the dignity to which they are entitled. I am grateful to have known them both, and I already miss them very much.
Ariela Migdal worked at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project from 2007 to 2015 and is now a lawyer at Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick, PLLC.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg did a lot. Because she had a clear idea of what her job as a lawyer and a judge was. She told us many times, including just months before her nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993. “The founders,” she wrote, “stated a commitment in the Declaration of Independence to equality and in the Declaration and the Bill of Rights to individual liberty. Those commitments had growth potential . . . a prime portion of the history of the US Constitution is the story of the extension (through amendment, judicial interpretation, and practice) of constitutional rights and protections to once-excluded groups: to people who were once held in bondage, to men without property, to Native Americans, and to women.”
From her opinions since 1993, we know the Ginsburg theory extends to many other excluded groups she didn’t even name—immigrants, LGBTQ people. If Hillary Clinton had won in 2016 and the Democrats had taken the Senate, she could have appointed a liberal, and RBG would have been the senior Justice in the liberal majority, with the power to assign who writes the opinions when the liberals win. It’s a lot like being the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
She never got the chance to enact her ideal of equality and inclusion. But that's what a legacy means: It’s on us, now.
Linda Hirshman is the author of many books, including Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World.
Justice Ginsburg was a legal powerhouse and a national treasure—an idealistic, determined, and graceful lawyer, judge, and justice. I was fortunate to be involved in one of Justice Ginsburg’s lesser known but very important signature projects called “personal jurisdiction”—the rules that determine where people can file lawsuits. Over the course of many years, Justice Ginsburg became the Court’s most important voice on these issues, and her opinions clarified a very messy and muddled area of the law. Personal jurisdiction is not the juiciest topic and it does not grab headlines, but it means everything to people who care about access to justice. That is one of the reasons I suspect that Justice Ginsburg paid such close attention to it. Her opinions for the Court brought clear and straightforward rules to this area of the law. She simplified the law and, most importantly, leveled the playing field for everyone. It’s another area where her commitment to equal justice under law leaves a lasting legacy.
I appeared before the Court in 2017 in what turned out to be the final case on personal jurisdiction that Justice Ginsburg would author. It was my first and only appearance before the Court, and a thrill to be in a dialogue with her on issues she knows better than anyone. When the decision came down 8–1, with Justice Ginsburg writing for the majority, I could not have been happier—for my client, of course, but also because I felt lucky and proud to have at least an indirect connection to an extraordinary person. RBG became a household name in our family, and I am proud that my daughter knows that her dad won his only case before the Supreme Court due to her.
Drew Tulumello is a partner in the Washington office of Gibson Dunn and was counsel of record in BNSF Railway v. Tyrell in 2017.
Allison Lauterbach Dale
As a scholar of legal history (my doctoral dissertation related to reproductive rights) and a lawyer, I can say that there are few in history who have been as monumental in the advancement of women’s rights in US law as Justice Ginsburg.
Justice Ginsburg represented all that is good about the law. She believed in and fought for equality, to her last breath. When she spoke at Berkeley Law my third year, I was lucky enough to ask her a question. I asked how she stayed hopeful and didn’t get dismayed by court decisions that seemed to agonize many of us. The gist is of what she said is this: Eventually the court gets it right. Eventually the country gets it right. She gave a brief lesson on legal history, tracing the ways the court had righted its previous wrongs, while acknowledging the work left to be done.
As a Jewish woman, a mom, and a lawyer, it never occurred to me that those three identities could not coexist. While that is in large part due to wonderful parenting, it is also because of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Representation matters. She did what she did so that I, and my daughters, could, too.
Allison Lauterbach Dale received her PhD in US history from the University of Southern California and law degree from UC Berkeley School of Law. She now works as Privacy Counsel at LinkedIn.
Nikki Horberg Decter
I was in the same room with Ruth Bader Ginsburg once, during the oral argument of Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs at the Supreme Court in 2003. Hibbs came to the Supreme Court almost exactly a decade after the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act. To graphically oversimplify, the Supreme Court was being asked to answer whether a state could be held accountable for violating the FMLA's family leave provisions. To do that, the Court was required to determine first whether the FMLA was a civil rights statute, grounded in the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The plaintiff, a male employee of Nevada, sought FMLA leave to care for his ailing wife and was terminated after he refused to return to work before the entitlement the FMLA provided, twelve weeks of job protected leave, had elapsed.
In ruling for Mr. Hibbs, and finding that the FMLA was, fundamentally, a statute enacted to redress gender discrimination, the Court found, “Stereotypes about women's domestic roles are reinforced by parallel stereotypes presuming a lack of domestic responsibilities for men. Because employers continued to regard the family as the woman's domain, they often denied men similar accommodations or discouraged them from taking leave. These mutually reinforcing stereotypes created a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination that forced women to continue to assume the role of primary family caregiver, and fostered employers' stereotypical views about women's commitment to work and their value as employees.” In retrospect, Hibbs was exactly the type of case RBG had carefully shepherded many times as the Director of the Women's Rights Project at the ACLU between 1972–1980 and whose precedents literally made Hibbs' successful resolution possible. What is remarkable—and truly a sign of Ginsburg's genius as well as her expertise and dedication to the art of persuasion—is that Hibbs was not written by her, but by Chief Justice Rehnquist.
During the oral argument in Hibbs, I was transfixed not only by Justice Ginsburg's precise questions, but by the fact that she would occasionally disappear from behind the bench. (All of the Justices sit in rocking chairs, and she was so short that when she rocked back, I was unable to see her.) I am not embarrassed to say that I found myself reassured each time she reappeared.
This is all to say that Justice Ginsburg has impacted me, personally and professionally, a great deal. However flawed women's struggle for equality in America is to date, and it remains deeply flawed, we are so much closer to equal in the eyes of the law because of Justice Ginsburg's immense body of work as a professor, attorney, and Justice. I am deeply grateful to have come into adulthood while the fruits of her legal work were already in blossom. On a more personal level, Justice Ginsburg provided me an exceptional, powerful example of a Jewish woman lawyer fighting for change. Her steadfast commitment to her craft, her bravery, unwillingness to bend to bigotry or sexism, adaptability, nuance, strength, and indefatigable work ethic have all nourished me at times. Even now, in 2020, the legal world is not always a welcoming place for women lawyers who work to make progressive change, particularly those who do so on their own terms. We may be branded difficult, nasty, or worse. Justice Ginsburg's life and legacy provide a powerful counter-narrative and a dynamic model for transforming both the legal profession and the law to make them more equal. It is enough to be one’s self, use one’s legal skills and talents to fight for justice, and be committed to one’s clients.
Nikki Horberg Decter is a labor lawyer who represents unions and workers. She lives with her husband and two RBG-adoring daughters in Brookline, MA.
Julie B. Rubenstein
Like so many of us, I learned of Justice Ginsburg’s death in the middle of Erev Rosh Hashanah services. Our rabbi announced the news, fighting back tears. I felt the loss immediately.
As a woman, a Jew, a lawyer, and a Cornellian, I couldn’t not revere her. She was all of the things I could ever dream of being: a trailblazer, a champion of human rights and dignity, a fighter for the under-privileged, and a taker of zero bullshit. She was brave in all the ways I wasn’t: I remember, in particular, a story about how, even as a young college student, she berated one of her Cornell professors for slipping her an advance copy of a chemistry exam under the guise of giving her a “practice” test. As a woman who (like so, so many of us) has experienced sexual harassment and stayed silent about it, I was always in awe of that kind of courage and fortitude. In one of her early opinions on the Court, she schooled the conservative bloc on the dangers of making “generalizations about ‘the way women are’” (United States v. Virginia). Even today, every woman knows what those generalizations feel like. People of color, people in the LGBTQ community, and other minorities also are keenly aware of the dangers of mass generalizations and discrimination. But through this adversity, RBG paved the way for us all to be braver, stronger, and louder. We owe it to her to live up to the standard she set (or at least try). That is more important now than it ever has been.
Julie B. Rubenstein is a lawyer in Washington, DC.
Jed Handelsman Shugerman
It may be hard to remember or imagine, but when I was a college student and a law student in the 1990s, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg introduced herself to the world as a moderate incrementalist. We were taught how her groundbreaking litigation strategy, for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project which she founded in 1972, succeeded precisely because it was so cautious and incrementalist. Her strategy was first to take men’s cases for sex discrimination: men who were denied benefits that were reserved for women as caregivers or widows, for men who had later drinking ages, men who had mandatory jury duty while women’s jury duty was only voluntary. Between 1973 and 1976, she argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, and she won five. She savvily attacked gender stereotypes when they benefited women to lay the constitutional groundwork for challenging all sex stereotypes. It was carefully and quietly brilliant, like her.
After President Carter named her to the DC Court of Appeals, she continued to make her mark as a moderate. In law school, we were taught to appreciate her balance, her moderation, her incrementalism, her view of trusting democracy over judicial activism. As a moderate liberal who shied away from the scary label “feminist” in the “Backlash” 1990s, I appreciated Justice Ginsburg.
But then something happened around 2000. First, Bush v. Gore. She called out the hypocrisy of the Court’s ostensible federalists, who ordinarily defer to state governments, but not here: “Were the other members of this court as mindful as they generally are of our system of dual sovereignty, they would affirm the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court.” While colleagues wrote they dissented “respectfully,” as Ginsburg usually did, too, she concluded with only: “I dissent.”
Then the Court turned further right over the next decade. The quiet and moderate Justice Ginsburg dissented more, and more forcefully and eloquently. There are many examples, but here is my favorite, in arguably the worst decision of the Roberts Court, striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 based on absurd reasoning and remarkable factual and demographic errors: “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in (the court’s) utter failure to grasp why the (law) has proven effective,” Ginsburg wrote. “Throwing out pre-clearance [review of states’ changes by the Department of Justice] when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
The Roberts Court has systematically undermined voting rights, and Ginsburg was right: We are now in a storm of anti-democratic attacks. And it was in this storm that the quiet moderate Justice Ginsburg became the Notorious RBG. I did not always agree with her, but I changed from appreciating her to loving her as a hero. I look back at how I—and many of us—changed along with her, from patient moderates in the 1980s and 1990s to more outspoken, fierce, dissenters and resisters today. In the decades RBG became a feminist icon, I became more proudly a self-identified feminist. On some level, there was a connection. RBG dissented for all of us when she had a voice that many of us felt we had been losing.
The last thing I’ll share is a defense of her retirement timing. Many liberals have criticized her decision not to retire under President Obama while the Democrats had a narrow Senate majority. First, I’d note that few people criticized men on the Court the same age for not retiring, even though women have a longer life expectancy. Second, it’s easy to forget the politics of 2012–2014. President Obama was running for re-election as a cautious moderate, adding names to his judicial shortlist from conservative states and with no record on women’s rights. Ginsburg knew how to recognize such moderation from her own life, and she would have been understandably cautious. The Democrats’ Senate majority remained narrow in 2013–14, and it was apparent that the decisive conservative Democrats wanted a moderate without a clear record on Roe. If Ginsburg cared more about her life’s work, her passion for women’s rights more than simply getting a “Democrat” on the Court, can she really be blamed? But finally, the critique is unfair in a time of partisanship. Yes, conservative Justices have been better, and luckier, and timing their retirements in obviously partisan ways, eroding the legitimacy of the Supreme Court. One can argue that if she were more partisan, she should have retired earlier. But we should at least take a step back, be as generous to her as she was to all of us with her life of public service, and appreciate that she was more than just a partisan, that she believed her life, the law, and perhaps judicial legitimacy was something bigger than party politics. Maybe she was right, maybe she was wrong, but she was Notoriously, gloriously independent. Thank you, Ruth.
Jed Handelsman Shugerman is a Professor at Fordham Law School and author of The People’s Courts, which traces the rise of judicial elections, judicial review, and the influence of money and parties in American courts.
Lacey Schwartz Delgado, filmmaker
One of the many special things about Justice Ginsburg is how different aspects of her life—beyond her jurisprudence—inform and inspire so many of us. As a female Jewish student at Harvard Law School (HLS), I felt her presence when I graduated exactly fifty years after the first class of women to be admitted to the school. On that day, reflecting on the challenges of the past three years, I recalled that when Justice Ginsburg arrived in 1956, she was not allowed into one of the libraries because she was a woman. She nonetheless persevered and then some. Her quiet determination was a guiding hand to countless women who chose law school and then entered the still-male-dominated world of law. While I chose a different path (I am a filmmaker), the Justice’s legacy as one of Harvard’s first female law students still inspires.
Later, as a wife and mother, I looked to Justice Ginsburg as an example again. She and her husband, Marty are famous for their relationship—a relationship based on an abiding mutual respect which allowed each of them to pursue their dreams while also supporting one another. Justice Ginsburg is famous for saying, “Marty was the first boy I met who cared that I had a brain.” In Antonio, I found my Marty. Antonio cares about my work and no matter what he is doing in his career, he supports my pursuits. And Justice Ginsburg likewise supported Marty. When Marty, who was also a student at HLS, was diagnosed with cancer, she attended classes for him, took notes for him, all the while caring for him and their young daughter. My husband and I also attended law school together and over time have learned how important it is to support one another through diverse challenging times. While I never took notes for Antonio, when we together decided that he should run for Congress in upstate New York where we are both from, I threw myself into the campaign and worked hard to ensure that he was elected. We continue to work together to do our part for our community and beyond. At the same time, we are raising our twin boys to understand the value of each of our careers. My hope is that someday, they will be somebody’s Marty. I continue to be inspired by the Ginsburgs’ partnership, and I am grateful that they helped pave the way for others to achieve equality and mutual respect in their relationships.
To me, the examples RBG has set in her personal life are just some of the ways she has made an indelible mark even beyond her brilliant, society-shaping jurisprudence.
Lacey Schwartz Delgado is a writer, director, producer who draws on her interdisciplinary background to create compelling stories that span documentary and fiction.
Remarks at Supreme Court Memorial Service, September 23, 2020
Today we stand in mourning of an American Hero, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In a moment, I will speak to what she meant to all of us, but first I would like to turn to her beloved family. The
Justice was a mother, a grandmother, and as we all know had one of the most extraordinary life partners in her beloved Marty. To each of you, and to the Justice’s colleagues, her loyal clerks
and her court family, the country mourns with you and sends you our deepest love and comfort.
To be born into a world that does not see you, that does not believe in your potential, that does not give you a path for opportunity, or a clear path for education, and despite this, to be able to see beyond the world you are in, to imagine that something can be different—that is the job of a prophet. And it is the rare prophet who not only imagines a new world, but also makes that new world a reality in her lifetime. This was the brilliance and vision of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The Torah is relentless in reminding, in instructing, in commanding that we never forget those who live in the shadows, those whose freedom and opportunity are not guaranteed. Thirty-six
times we are taught that we must never forget the stranger. Twelve times we are told to care for the widow and the orphan. This is one of the most important commandments of the Torah. It is the Torah’s call to action.
And it is also the promise written into our Constitution.
As Justice Ginsburg said:
“Think back to 1787. Who were ‘We the people”’? … They certainly weren’t women … they surely weren’t people held in human bondage. The genius of our Constitution is that now—over more than 200 sometimes turbulent years—that ‘we’ has expanded and expanded.”
This was Justice Ginsburg’s life’s work: to insist that the Constitution deliver on its promise that “we the people” would include all the people. She carried out that work in every chapter of her life: As an advocate arguing six times before this Court for equal treatment for women and men. As a Judge on the D.C. Circuit. As a Justice on this Court. And as a pathmarking role model to women and girls of all ages—who now know that no office is out of reach for their dreams whether that is to serve in the highest court in our land or closer to home for me, as the
rabbi of their community.
Nothing could stop Justice Ginsburg’s unflagging devotion to this project, not even cancer. Justice Ginsburg, m’dor l’dor—from generation to generation we promise to carry forward your
legacy. May you rest under the wings of the shekhinah knowing that you have tirelessly served us and this great country, the United States of America.
Remarks at the US Capitol Memorial Service, September 25, 2020
In the chambers of Justice Ginsburg hangs a framed piece of art that reads, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, justice, justice you must pursue. A command in the 16th chapter of Deuteronomy, the rabbinic tradition assigns meaning to every single word in the Torah, so there must be a reason why tzedek, justice is written twice.
The repetition here teaches Ibn Ezra, a medieval rabbi, that time and time again, all of the days of your life, you must pursue justice.
This was how Justice Ginsburg lived her life. Justice did not arrive like a lightning bolt but rather through dogged persistence, all the days of her life. “Real change she said, “enduring change, happens one step at a time.” She faced many obstacles in her life, even from a young age. Though chosen as the valedictorian of her high school class, she gave no graduation speech. Instead, she grieved at home with her father after burying her beloved mother one day before graduation.
Her family had already suffered terrible loss with the death of her sister when Justice Ginsburg was only 14 months old.
But Justice Ginsburg kept rising, a full scholarship to Cornell University and only one of nine women in her Harvard Law School Class. After transferring to Columbia Law School, she graduated first in her class, yet she could not find a job. No firm in New York would hire her because she was a woman.
These obstacles didn’t deter her. She pressed on. As she said in an interview with her dear friend, Nina Totenberg, and I quote, “I get out of law school with top grades, no law firm in the city of New York will hire me. I end up teaching. That gave me time to devote to the movement of evening out the rights of women and men. I was nominated to a vacancy on the D.C. circuit. Justice O’Connor once said to me, suppose we had come of age in a time when women lawyers were welcome at the bar. You know what? Today, we would have been retired partners from some large law firm. But because the route was not open to us, we had to find another way. And both end up on the United States Supreme Court.”
All the days of her life, she pursued justice, even in illness. She fought five bouts with cancer and she supported her beloved Marty through his battle with cancer, as well. Each time, she pressed forward. She returned to work, to the bench, to the court, with focus each and every time.
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, nothing was given. Pursuing justice took resilience, persistence, a commitment to never stop. As a lawyer, she won equality for women and men, not in one swift victory but brick by brick, case by case, through meticulous, careful lawyering.
She changed the course of American law. And even when her views did not prevail, she still fought.
In recent years, Justice Ginsburg became famous for her dissents. Despair was not an option. She said, and I quote, “dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say my colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way. But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually, over time, their views become the dominant view, so that the dissenters hope that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.” Justice Ginsburg’s dissents were not cries of defeat, they were blueprints for the future.
Justice Ginsburg loved her family, her children, her grandchildren, her dear friends, her colleagues and her court family. We all send our love to you. And Justice Ginsburg also loved the court, to which she so devoted her life, a court for all of us. It was Justice Ginsburg’s tenacious hope to preserve the integrity of the court.
Today, she makes history again, as the first woman and the first Jewish person to lie in state. Today, we stand in sorrow and tomorrow, we the people, must carry on Justice Ginsburg's legacy. Even as our hearts are breaking, we must rise with her strength and move forward. She was our prophet, our north star, our strength for so very long. Now she must be permitted to rest after toiling so hard for every single one of us.
May the memory of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, forever and ever be a blessing. God give us the strength and bless us with the courage, the intelligence, the bravery and the unbreakable resolve to pursue justice. Amen.
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt is the co senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1933–2020." (Viewed on January 22, 2021) <https://jwa.org/weremember/ginsburg-ruth>.