Ruth Bader Ginsberg faced many challenges to become a lawyer. In 1956, she was one of only nine women at Harvard Law School (out of 500 students!). She and her female classmates were even banned from using one of the libraries on campus. But that didn’t stop her from following her dream—which led her to become the first Jewish person and second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court—the highest court in the country.
Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 15, 1933. Many girls in her school were also called Joan, so she decided to go by her middle name.
Ruth’s parents did not go to college. But they knew that education was important and encouraged her to learn as much as she could. She studied government while on a scholarship at Cornell University, then enrolled at Harvard Law School two years after she married her husband, Martin “Marty” Ginsburg, in 1954. After he graduated, the family moved to New York City, and Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated in 1959.
At that time, many women did not work outside their homes, and some men believed that women weren’t as capable as men to work for pay. So even though Ginsburg graduated from law school with top grades, she couldn’t find a job as a lawyer. Instead, she became a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. When students asked her to teach a class on how women were treated under the law, Ginsburg discovered some unfair practices—for instance, some working mothers weren't provided health insurance by their companies, even though their male coworkers were. This helped fuel her interest in fighting for women’s equality.
While she was teaching at Rutgers, Ginsburg found out that she was being paid less than male professors. Then she found out that other women were being paid less, too! She and her female colleagues demanded equal pay from the university—and they got it.
Soon Ginsburg was fighting many cases in court to help people who were being treated unfairly because of their gender—for instance, she won a case to allow pregnant women and women with children to serve in the military. Then in 1972, she helped start the Women’s Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that argues for fair treatment of all U.S. citizens. Through this project, Ginsburg won five out of six gender equality cases in front of the Supreme Court.
Now people were thinking about Ginsburg whenever they thought about equal protection for women under the law. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals (the court that hears cases from lower courts when people don’t agree with the decision). Then on August 10, 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ginsburg was one of nine Supreme Court justices, and many times she disagreed with their decisions. But she wrote very powerful statements whenever she disagreed, called a dissenting opinion, and soon she earned the nickname the “Great Dissenter.”
Sometimes those statements led to Congress passing new laws. One time in 2007, the Supreme Court heard a case from a woman named Lily Ledbetter who discovered she was being paid less than her male co-workers. Most of the Supreme Court justices said she had waited too long to come to court, and Ledbetter lost her case. But because of Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion, Congress passed a law two years later changing those time limits—and therefore giving women more protection.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg served on the Supreme Court every day until her death on September 18, 2020. She was 87 years old. For days afterward, the Supreme Court grounds in Washington, D.C., were covered in flowers and messages from people all across the country, who remembered and respected how she always fought for equality and was never afraid to disagree with anyone.