(WOMENSENEWS)–On the surface, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life appears to be a smooth road to the American dream. Child of immigrant parents does well in college, goes to law school and ties for first in her class, practices her profession, becomes the first woman to hold a tenured professorship at Columbia Law School, becomes a judge and then becomes only the second woman ever nominated to the Supreme Court.
In truth, the journey was more troubled. Ginsburg’s sister died at 8; her mother died on the day before high school graduation. The man she married developed testicular cancer and was given little hope of survival. The nine women in her law school class were asked to explain why they were taking up space that rightfully belonged to deserving men. Finally, in 1959, armed with the best credentials in the world, including a Columbia University J.D. degree, she could not get work as a lawyer because she was, in her words, “a woman, a Jew and a mother to boot.” Even the renowned justice Felix Frankfurter said he was not ready to hire a woman as his clerk.
When the 60-year-old Ginsburg became President Bill Clinton’s first high court appointment–August 10, 1993–she had been both participant in and shaper of a turbulent time. She had come of age when few women were admitted to professional schools. The legal profession long resisted the admission of women. In 1873, Myra Bradwell of Chicago had been denied the opportunity to practice law; the U.S. Supreme Court upheld her exclusion. Concurring in the judgment, Justice Joseph Bradley wrote, “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” Few major law firms into the 1950s hired Jews. “Sex discrimination” had barely been named. Women who became pregnant could be fired from most jobs and Ginsburg herself had hidden a second pregnancy while teaching law by wearing oversized clothes borrowed from her mother-in-law.
President Clinton said that Justice Ginsburg had done for gender equity what Thurgood Marshall had done for racial equality. As director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union beginning in 1972, Ginsburg, along with many others drawn to the legal front of the women’s movement, managed to dismantle many of the myriad discriminations written, if not in stone, then in federal law. No surprise, then, to find that she was an inspiration to the next generation, including her daughter, Jane. In her 1973 high school yearbook, under “ambition,” she wrote: “To see my mother appointed to the Supreme Court.”
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected].
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For more information:
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Advocating for the Elimination of Gender-Based Discrimination”
ACLU Tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Jewish Women’s Archive: Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution
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