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RBG Creating Her Legal Landscape by Nuala G.

Many people know about Ruth Bader Ginsburg who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 and was involved in many important cases during her time in office. Most, however, are not familiar with how she became a lawyer and how she selected groundbreaking cases and built her legal career.

Many things influenced Ruth’s path to becoming a lawyer. Her parents believed in the importance of getting a good education for both their daughter and their son. As a teen, Ruth saw how people were being unfairly investigated and accused of being Communists during the McCarthy Era. Ruth realized that one way she could have a positive impact on making people’s lives better was to become a lawyer and make or change laws.

Ruth enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1956 as one of only nine women in a class of 500 students. She worked hard, but she faced discrimination from teachers and fellow students. Once she went to the library to study and was told by an employee that she couldn’t go in because the library didn’t allow women. In the face of many challenges, Ruth persevered, made the prestigious Harvard Law Review, and graduated at the top of her class from Columbia University in New York City where she transferred after her husband’s job required her to move.

Despite her academic achievements, Ruth continued to encounter gender discrimination while looking for a job. She wanted to work for a law firm, but even those where she had contacts were unwilling to hire her. Instead, she became a law professor and taught at Rutgers University Law School (1963-1972) and then at Columbia University Law School (1972-1980.)

In 1972, while Ruth was teaching at Columbia, she became a co-founder of the Women's Rights Project (WRP) through her work with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The WRP helped women who experienced gender bias or discrimination through legal cases, community outreach, advocacy, and public education. In 1973, Ruth became the Project's General Counsel, meaning she was the main lawyer to give legal advice and take on important cases. This role set her on a course that eventually led her to a seat on America’s highest court.

Ruth carefully selected her cases. It was the early 1970s, and she wanted to raise awareness of gender discrimination just like the Civil Rights Movement raised awareness of racial discrimination. She argued six cases before the Supreme Court and won five of them. She picked them because by winning each one, she was able to case by case build equal protections for women and men under the law to receive equal employment benefits and survivor benefits after their spouse died. In addition, she fought to allow both men and women to serve on juries.

These landmark cases gave women protections during a time when it was okay to fire women for getting pregnant or for banks to refuse to give women their own credit cards. By winning her cases, Ruth helped the privileged men on the Supreme Court understand how women were treated like second-class citizens. Her legal contributions led to her becoming appointed as a Federal judge in 1980 and then a Supreme Court judge in 1993. All along the way, she was a respected and forceful supporter of gender equality and women's rights.

Five Fun Facts about RBG

  1. Ruth got the nickname The Notorious RBG from a social media blog based off a rapper’s name.

  2. She loved opera for its beauty and drama.

  3. Ruth could do 20 push-ups and worked out regularly.

  4. Her kids asked her to not cook anything.

  5. Her nickname was Kiki.

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