With the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, two women remain on the Court, Sonia Sotomayor (2009) and Elena Kagan (2010). In the Court’s 231-year history, 114 justices have served, four or about 3.5 percent, were/are women.
Sandra Day O’Connor, a centrist conservative, was the first woman to sit on the high Court. President Reagan made good on a campaign promise to put the first woman on the Court. The Senate confirmation vote was 99-0. The form of address changed from “Mr. Justice” to a more inclusive title, “Justice.”
Sonia Sotomayor was nominated in 2009 by President Obama. After a contentious Senate battle and a 68-31 vote, she took her seat as the first Hispanic justice.
Obama nominated Elena Kagan in 2010, followed by another battle in the Senate, but she was confirmed by a 63–37 vote. She recused herself on many decisions, “the result of having worked in the executive branch for Bill Clinton.”
Supreme Court Justices are different from other government figures. They dress in long black robes. Their personal lives are not on magazine covers. They work in a marble palace, appearing periodically to announce a decision, then disappear for another spell.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, to a low-income, working-class family. She graduated first in her class from Cornell in1954. Her daughter was born in 1955, 14 months before Ginsberg became one of nine women in a 500-person class at Harvard Law School. At a small dinner party, hosted by Dean Erwin Griswold, the host challenged her to justify women’s presence at the law school when their spots could have gone to men. Ruth pressed on and eventually became the first female member of the Harvard Law Review.
When her husband, Martin, took a New York law firm position, she transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated first in her 1959 class. Ginsburg worked for a top law firm in New York during the summer of her second year in law school. “I thought I had done a terrific job, and I expected them to offer me a job at graduation.” There was no job offer from any of the twelve firms that interviewed her. Finally, she was hired by Judge Edmund L. Palmieri of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
For two years, Ruth joined the Columbia Project of International Civil Procedure that immersed her in Swedish culture, living abroad to research her book on Swedish Civil Procedure practices.
Ginsburg directed the influential Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s. Prompted by her own experiences, she began to handle sex discrimination complaints referred to her by the New Jersey affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. In her position with the ACLU, she fought against gender discrimination and successfully argued six landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ginsburg fought not just for the women left behind, but also for the men experiencing discrimination. As a Professor at Rutgers University School of Law, she continued experiencing gender discrimination, even going so far as to hide her pregnancy from her colleagues. Discovering that her salary was lower than that of her male colleagues, she joined an equal pay campaign with other women teaching at the university, which resulted in substantial increases for all the complainants.
President Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980, where she served for 13 years until President Clinton nominated her for the United States Supreme Court.
In a speech at Suffolk Law School (2007), she said she disliked being the only woman on the Supreme Court. Although she’d disagreed with former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on some important questions, they shared experiences of growing up women.
At a legal conference in Colorado (2012), feisty Ruth Ginsburg made the headlines by saying she hoped to see an all-female Supreme Court one day. “When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough (women justices) and I say, when there are nine, people are shocked,” she explains then adds, “nobody ever raised a question when nine men dominated the court.”
Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s fight for civil and women’s rights made the world better for all of us.
(Updated from Sunday Newsletter for Women, 2018)