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Remembering RBG: the woman who changed America

Judicial giant and feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on 18 September, with her death leaving a massive power vacuum in multiple ways. Over seven decades Bader Ginsburg became a trailblazer, breaking her way into institutions desperate to keep her excluded and opening up opportunities for women after her. 

Born Joan Ruth Bader in 1933, Ginsburg grew up in Brooklyn, New York. With her mother pushing her towards pursuing academics, Ginsburg far exceeded her family’s original aspirations of her becoming a high school history teacher. Graduating high school at 17 and finishing her undergraduate degree in 1954 as the top-ranking woman in her class, she then went on to be one of nine women admitted to Harvard Law school in 1956. 

Following a transfer to Columbia University, Ginsburg started her long lists of milestones throughout her career, becoming the first woman on two major law reviews at her respective universities. In 1972, she  simultaneously became the first tenured woman at Columbia and the founding director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project. 

Most historically, she was the second woman to ever be selected for the Supreme Court. Nominated by Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg was sworn in as the first Jewish woman to ever sit on the court and one of four women ever. Even in her death she made a significant milestone in American history as the first woman to ever lay in state. 

Sexism remained a constant barrier to RBG’s progression through her life, but this discrimination ultimately became the backbone of her legal career. The barriers placed in front of RBG – a demotion for becoming pregnant, a refusal to hire her due to her gender and her place at Harvard questioned by its dean – can be seen to have moved her towards advocacy for women’s rights. 

Sexism remained a constant barrier to RBG’s progression through her life, but this discrimination ultimately became the backbone to her legal career

With the backdrop of the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment, the politics regarding women’s rights transported from the political realm into the judicial. After years of clerking, being a professor and writing legal books Ginsburg had the opportunity to fight six legal cases in front of the all-male supreme court. She won five of them.

On the back of the wording of the XIV Amendment to the constitution, Ginsburg was able to advance women’s legal rights which in turn contributed to the changing tide in regard to social change. Allowing for the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, RBG expanded the scope of these words to protect women from gender discrimination.

Ginsburg was able to advance women’s legal rights which in turn contibuted to the changing tide in regard to social change

After helping write the brief in Reed v Reed in 1971, Ginsburg aided in achieving a decision and saw a law in Idaho stating preference in granting men the right to administer estates unconstitutional. This gave judicial precedent for when she came to argue before the court. 

Four of Ginsburg’s winning cases focused upon benefits, centring on how the state would not help men out financially when placed in the same position as women. Widowers and a husband of a service woman became those who RBG fought for in front of the all -male Supreme Court. Her final case in front of the bench in 1978 saw her overturn the ability to dismiss female jurors on the basis of gender, with it found to have been in violation of her male defendant’s XI and XIV amendment rights. 

What all of Ginsburg’s winning cases had in common was sexism disadvantaging men. Through framing the discrimination against women as disadvantaging men, Ginsburg ensured that calls of getting involved in the political push for women’s rights could not stick as the appellate was male. It also aided in appealing to the staunchest misogynists and opponents to social change easier. 

RBG played the system and then she rewrote it. Through working her way to the US’ top court she became the change she wanted to see. Her legacy can be seen through future laws passed and the way the society operated. 

Through working her way to the US top court, she became the change she wanted to see

Through her legal work women were able to enter into the workplace, gain credit cards and be viewed as having equal responsibilities as men. Through granting economic freedoms to women in a capitalist world, she facilitated their individual growth and independence. After becoming a justice on the court, Ginsburg was able to rule to uphold the right to an abortion, grant gay marriage across the US and protect other minority groups.

Her cult following followed much later into her career. On the court as she dissented as the court turned more conservative and her rulings were often no longer in the majority. Within his four years of office Trump was able to fill the court with two relatively young, white, male conservative justices who many fear will reverse decades of rulings done by RBG and her liberal counterparts. Her dissents earned her notoriety and a push into popular culture.

The Supreme Court, despite being a place of law and created to protect both citizens and the 50 states from constitutional violation, has become a highly political venue. With justices appointed for life and their rulings dictating the parameters of law across the US, appointments can be seen to sway the courts towards either liberalism or conservatism for decades past the president who appoints them leaves office. 

With a more liberal court is viewed as a barrier to the current domination by Republican’s in both the Senate and the White House, a shift to the courts balance has been opened by Ginsburg’s death. Decisions made by the court can range from appeals by individuals on the federal circuit to whole states challenging the power of Congress or the president. 

With the Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the 2020 Presidential Election and the coronavirus pandemic affecting the way that Americans vote, the US Supreme Court is being viewed as a place where the election could potential be decided. With the decision in Bush v Gore seen by many to have handed Bush Jr. the presidency many fear that if Trump is able to ensure himself an electoral win through filling the court with judges sympathetic to his ideologies. 

Many have questioned the stability of the US political system if it lay on the shoulders of a 87-year-old justice. Whilst alive RBG was a significant proponent of the law and governance kept up with the living, rather than letting the laws of dead men control the present day. 

Her work and service speaks to for her intellect, principles and dedication to her role. 

As she aged and faced five battles with cancer, many viewed Ginsburg as a fighter who made intense personal sacrifice in order to make rulings she viewed as protecting the constitution and American public. She served 9,901 days as an associate justice working through bother her and her husband Martin chemotherapy treatments and his death in 2010. 

In her dying days Ginsburg realised the significance of her passing in respect to the political sphere. With the 2020 election only months away there is the potential for Joe Biden to appoint her replacement if he is elected to the White House. Even her dying wish that her replacement be done when a new president is elected, has been thrown into the political realm with accusations of the left lying about the justice’s final requests. 

“The Notorious RBG” has gained glowing obituaries from women who clerked for her, recognising the doors she opened behind her as she disrupted the walls of power in pursuit of gender equality

However, the outpourings of love and affection towards her decisions have rolled in from celebrities to average Americans who have benefitted from her rulings. “The Notorious RBG” has gained glowing obituaries from women who clerked for her, recognising the doors she opened behind her as she disrupted the walls of power in pursuit of gender equality. 

Outside the Capitol vast people have gathered to mourn a five-foot-tall giant. Whilst some see much of her work as dying with her as a new age of conservatism takes over the court, several generations of women have been inspired by her work and could continue her fight forwards towards gaining true gender equality. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legal work and advocacy for women throughout her career has seen her become one of the most influential lawyers and justices ever, regardless of her gender. 

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