Every man and woman in the United States has a lot to thank Ginsburg for, but many don’t really know how much she’s done. For example, did you know that her fight against sex-based discrimination began long before she joined the Supreme Court?
Whether she was fighting for the rights of the underserved or acting as a role model for a whole generation of women, Ruth Bader Ginsburg lived an extraordinary life. Ginsburg was quoted, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” Let’s take a step back and celebrate the many incredible accomplishments of RBG, including some impressive feats that you may not have even known Ginsburg achieved. And while we’re talking about shaping American history, don’t forget to register to vote!
She graduated at the top of her class from Columbia
After graduating from Cornell in 1954 (at the top her of class!), she married her fellow classmate, Martin Ginsburg. Two years later, she became one of nine women at Harvard Law School — out of a class of 500. When her husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer, she went to his classes and took notes for him so he could keep up with his studies…while she simultaneously kept up with her own coursework and raising their daughter Jane. Martin recovered and took a position at a law firm in New York City, then Ruth moved with him and finished her degree at Columbia Law School, graduating first in her class.
She became the first person on both Harvard and Columbia Law
She was not only the first woman to become a member of the student-run legal journals from each school but the first person, ever. This is not to say she didn’t experience discrimination based on her gender. As depicted in the movie about Ginsburg’s life, On the Basis of Sex, one of her professors at Harvard once made her and her female colleagues justify why they deserved a position that could have gone to a man. Ginsburg was later quoted as saying she went to law school for “for personal, selfish reasons. I thought I could do a lawyer’s job better than any other.”
She fought for pay equality for herself and her fellow professors
“I struck out on three grounds,” Ginsburg said. “I was Jewish, a woman and a mother. The first raised one eyebrow; the second, two; the third made me indubitably inadmissible.” Despite her stellar education, she had trouble finding a job. After working on the Columbia Project on International Civil Procedure, Ginsburg took a job as a law professor at Rutgers University, only the second woman to do so.
It was here that Ginsburg found her passion, co-founding the still running Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first law journal about women’s rights. When Ginsburg found out that her male colleagues were making significantly more than her, she and other female employees filed an Equal Pay Act complaint. They won.
At Columbia, she continued to fight sex-based discrimination
In 1972, Ginsburg became the first tenured female Columbia Law School professor. As she co-wrote the first law school casebook on sex discrimination in 1974, Ginsburg practiced what she preached. At the university, she fought for her female colleagues to earn the same retirement benefits as her male counterparts.
She co-founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project
Working with the American Civil Liberties Union, Ginsburg began litigating sex-discrimination cases. Her strategy was to take on winnable cases to slowly nullify institutionalized discrimination against woman with new legal precedents, though some feminists at the time criticized her for not going far enough. Before setting on the bench herself, Ginsburg argued six cases in front of the Supreme Court — and won five.
She was the second woman, and first Jewish person, to serve on the US Supreme Court
After being appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg became the second of only four female justices in US history. During her time as a justice, Ginsburg earned the nickname ‘The Great Dissenter’ for writing fiery, impassioned dissents when her fellow judges passed decisions Ginsburg found regressive. “I like to think most of my dissents will be the law someday,” Ginsburg said in 2015.
She fought for much more than women’s rights
While she’s remembered as a feminist icon, it’s important not to overlook the fact that many of her victories were outside the realm of sex-based discrimination. Ginsburg also passionately fought for the rights of the LGBT community, undocumented people and disabled people. She also fought to expand voting rights. Whoever becomes the 115th US Supreme Court Justice has some big shoes to fill.