Ruth Bader Ginsburg; a hero, an icon, a brilliant woman whose life was spent fighting for equality. I first learned of RBG when working for Bella S. Abzug (D-N.Y.) another brilliant woman and leader in the women’s movement. As a gay man, I owe much to both of them for fighting and speaking out for my rights.
RBG was a scholar on the front lines of the woman’s movement. Ginsburg understood discrimination against women from personal experience. According to Wikipedia “At age 21, she worked for the Social Security Administration office in Oklahoma, where she was demoted after becoming pregnant with her first child.” Then “in the fall of 1956, Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School, where she was one of only nine women in a class of about 500 men.” It was reported “The Dean of Harvard Law invited all the female law students to dinner at his family home and asked the female law students, including Ginsburg, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School and became the first woman to be on two major law reviews.” After graduation “At the start of her legal career, Ginsburg encountered difficulty in finding employment. In 1960, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter rejected Ginsburg for a clerkship position due to her gender.”
From 1961 to 1963, Ginsburg was a research associate at Columbia and in 1963 became a professor at Rutgers Law School. Even there she encountered discrimination “informed she would be paid less than her male colleagues because she had a husband with a well-paid job.”
Ginsburg began to fight back. First, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU then becoming its general counsel. She was to argue six major cases in front of the Supreme Court of which she won five.
In 1980 Jimmy Carter nominated her to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Then in 1993 she was nominated to a seat on the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton. The story goes she was not on Clinton’s original list of people to consider but Hillary Clinton knew her and asked Bill to add her to his list. After he met and talked with her she became his choice. Hillary understood “By the time she sat on the Supreme Court, she had already wiped over 200 discriminatory laws off the books.” At the age of 86 Ginsburg spoke of her fame and “while referencing her popular nickname, ‘the Notorious R.B.G,’ saying that it was beyond her ‘wildest imagination; that people of all ages would want to take selfies with her.’”
Well I was one of those people and fortunate to have met her a number of times. The first when she spoke at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia on whose Board of Trustees I served. I was mesmerized by her speech. She took some questions after the speech before joining us for tea. One reporter asked her a fairly dumb question to which she responded politely, in essence telling him it would behoove him to do his research before he asked questions in the future so he would sound smarter. The next time we were sitting at the same table at an event hosted by the Shakespeare Theatre Company where she was a regular attendee. She was a theater lover and good friend of their artistic director, Michael Kahn. The last time we spoke and I had the chance to thank her for all she had done for so many of us was when she officiated at Michael Kahn and Charles Mitchem’s wedding. She did this before the Supreme Court recognized marriage equality. When pronouncing Michael and Charles Husband and Husband she said she did so as a justice of the court because it was right, and under the laws of the District of Columbia which had recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry.
The fight over replacing her on the court will be epic and may influence the election. Clearly Trump and “Moscow Mitch” and a raft of hypocritical Republicans won’t recognize her final wishes as reported, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed, Ginsburg said in a statement dictated to her granddaughter, Clara Spera.”
But for today let us just remember and mourn this great woman who will forever have a place of honor in our history.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.