Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the US Supreme Court and its most determined advocate for gender equality, has died at the age of 87. She had endured multiple bouts of cancer before succumbing to the disease.
Unlike most Supreme Court justices, in her later life she became a national cult figure. She was nicknamed “The Notorious RBG”; movies and TV programmes were made about her; even her exercise regime was avidly followed, all of which she took with typical modesty and a wry smile.
Her own early professional life was an embodiment of the discrimination practised against women. She was a brilliant student, who graduated tied for first in her class at Columbia Law School, having previously served on the prestigious Harvard Law Review. Yet all her applications to New York law firms were rejected. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter refused to even grant her an interview for a clerkship.
She turned that experience into a life-long crusade, operating within, not outside, the legal system, as a university professor, lawyer and judge. Her elevation to the highest bench in 1993 by president Bill Clinton was recognition of her considerable achievements, and her service on the court, where she was among its most liberal members in a conservative era, was equally distinguished.
Ruth Joan Bader was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 15, 1933, the daughter of Jewish immigrants. Her father, a furrier and haberdasher, emigrated to the US from Ukraine and her mother was born in New York to parents from Austria. She earned her first degree from Cornell University, where she met and married Martin Ginsburg after graduation.
The couple, already with a first child, Jane, then entered Harvard Law School. He was diagnosed with cancer and, during recuperation, she covered his classes for him. When he was then recruited by a New York law firm, they moved to the city and she enrolled at Columbia. After her initial rejections, she got her first clerkship, to Edmund Palmieri, a federal judge, who later rated her one his best ever law clerks.
After three years on a Columbia project on the Swedish judicial system, which required her to learn the language, she joined the law faculty at Rutgers University, only the second woman ever on its staff. But she lacked academic tenure and therefore disguised her second pregnancy, to her son James, by wearing her mother’s larger clothes.
That experience, spurred by reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, moved her into the whole area of gender discrimination, both at Rutgers and later back at Columbia and as a volunteer lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, where she was to become a general counsel in the 1970s. In that capacity, she argued six discrimination cases in front of the Supreme Court, winning five of them, including one landmark decision concerning Social Security benefits in which she represented a widower.
Her reputation was such that then-president Jimmy Carter appointed her to the US appeals court for the DC circuit in 1980. The couple moved to Washington where her husband became a law professor at Georgetown University. In nominating her to a Supreme Court vacancy in 1993 on the retirement of Justice Byron White, Mr Clinton said he was looking for someone with “a fine mind, good judgment, wide experience in the law and in the problems of real people, and somebody with a big heart”.
Although joined a year later by another liberal, Justice Stephen Breyer, this was a court dominated by conservatives, with the two Clinton nominees and two judges appointed by Republican presidents, John Paul Stevens and David Souter, in the invariable minority unless they could win the support, on some issues, of their more independent-minded conservative colleagues. That balance was not changed by subsequent appointments of very rightwing justices by then-president George W Bush and current president Donald Trump, only partly offset by the two Obama nominees.
She did, however, join the first woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Though ideologically far apart, they combined to thwart successive challenges to Roe vs Wade, the 1973 ruling establishing a woman’s right to abort a pregnancy. She was also, along with Justice Breyer, convinced that the Supreme Court should not ignore foreign legal precedent and practice in setting standards for the US.
Occasionally, she would depart from the convention of dissenting from rulings by written opinions and deliver them orally from the bench. Most vividly, after a 2007 ruling against the practice known as “partial birth” (late-term) abortion, she quivered with anger in declaring that the protection of reproductive rights was not a matter of “some vague and generalised notion of privacy”, but of “a woman’s autonomy to decide for herself her life’s course, and thus enjoy equal citizenship stature”.
Yet her firm beliefs did not prevent her from forming a warm relationship with the court’s chief ideologue on the right, Justice Antonin Scalia, a frequent dining companion and fellow opera lover (she once appeared as an extra in a Washington Opera production) with whom she was once photographed riding an elephant. Her other pastimes included skiing, both on snow and water, and horseback riding.
Her judicial legacy is substantial, not least for the precision and quality of her opinions, often restrained in language but always logical. Inside a tiny body lived a very large mind with admirers numbering in the millions. Her husband died in 2010 and she is survived by her two children.