Back story: Notorious “RBG”

A terrible reality grasped the nation last Friday when reports told the airwaves that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion of gender equality, had succumbed to her cancer battle. The heralded “firebrand” passed away at age 87 due to complications from metastatic cancer of the pancreas. Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio (NPR) reported Justice Ginsburg died at home in Washington, D.C. surrounded by family and friends.

The late Supreme Court Justice, born Joan Ruth Bader March 15, 1933 in Brooklyn, NY unknowingly embarked upon a life riddled with challenges. Her elder sister, Marilyn, died of meningitis when just six years-old. Young Ruth attended public schools and always stood out as her mother, Celia Bader, directed she should always be a lady. For her, she’d noted, that meant be your own person; be independent.

In keeping with the nature of that challenge, even the death of her mother from cancer the day before she graduated high school, Ruth never allowed life to mandate her options. Bader went on to Cornell University on a full scholarship where she met Martin (Marty) Ginsburg.

They married shortly after she graduated and moved to Ft. Sill, Okla. for his military service. Gender discrimination only allowed Mrs. Ginsburg, regardless of her high score on the civil service exam, to work as a typist. Her becoming pregnant even resulted with the loss of that job.

The couple returned to the East Coast two years later and both attended Harvard Law School where Ruth Ginsburg was one of only nine women in a class of more than 500. There was one point the dean, reportedly, confronted the future legal eagle to question why she was taking up a place that “should go to a man.”

Like most challenges, Ginsburg overcame the adversities of discrimination and quickly emerged as an academic achiever, ahead of her husband. The onset of another challenge was in the process of the young wife’s attempts to manipulate an already busy schedule while caring for a toddler; Marty Ginsburg was diagnosed with testicular cancer. With that came numerous surgeries and aggressive radiation treatments which left Ruth seeing after her sick husband, a three year-old, her classes, and the law review.

That experience, she once informed, had taught her that sleep was a luxury. In the time of Marty’s illness, he wasn’t able to eat until late at night, after which, he’d dictate his senior class paper to her. With him finally getting back to sleep around 2 a.m., she would then take out her books and start reading to prepare for the next day’s classes.

Fortunately, Marty survived and graduated before going to work in New York when his wife, a year behind, transferred to Columbia and eventually graduated at the top of her law school class. Regardless of her academic achievements, law firms still had no interest in employing women. Ironically, when recommended for a Supreme Court clerkship, Ginsburg wasn’t even interviewed.

More difficult than being a woman during that time, Ginsburg later recalled, motherhood only added to the plight as male judges worried she’d be diverted by her “familial obligations.” It had been a mentor, law professor Gerald Gunther, who’d finally gotten her a clerkship in New York; committing to Judge Edmund Palmieri that he’d find a replacement if she wasn’t able to complete the work. Ginsburg, of course, went on to exceed all expectations as was typical of her nature. That was, perhaps, a pre-curser for the five ensuing bouts with cancer herself.

The late justice had the benefit of teaching at Rutgers Law School in 1963; having to hide her second pregnancy. Eventually, she’d become the first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School, and founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Those experiences were instrumental in compelling Ginsburg to become the catalyst for balance in laws related to gender equality long before ever being appointed to the land’s highest court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Her accomplishments extend much farther than space will allow but I submit that, beyond the conflicts of party lines, America has lost a true icon. I could be wrong but it’s just something to consider.

To pose a question or share your opinion, you can reach B. G. Howard at or P. O. Box 8103, Jacksonville, FL 32239.