Justice of the United States Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died this past Friday at the age of 87, had become a champion of feminism and an icon of pop culture, with millions of fans who honor her for having sculpted a legal doctrine that enabled key advances towards gender equality.
“Notorious (Reputed) RBG” is the expression with which thousands of memes wereshared on the Internet of her, printed on T-shirts and recreated in tattoos to honor the oldest of the nine magistrates of the court.
The nickname comes from “Notorious (Reputed) BIG”, considered one of the most influential rappers in the history of music, with whom Ginsburg shares his origin in Brooklyn (New York) and, according to his followers, the pioneering character of his race.
When Ginsburg began studying law at Harvard University in 1956, only eight other women shared a law firm desk with 500 men and, in the legal profession, female representation was limited to 3%, recalls in her biography “My Own Words”.
A woman in a man’s world
Ginsburg entered a world reserved for men and ran into many difficulties. She moved to New York in 1958, and when she graduated the first of her class that same year, no law firm hired her simply because she was a woman.
She concentrated on the academic world and began teaching at Columbia University for a few years later, in 1972, being one of the founders of the Women’s Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), whose goal was to change the laws to ensure effective equality between men and women.
Women’s time has come
Ginsburg’s strategy was to use the rulings against racial segregation to show that jurisprudence already established that all people should have the same rights under the law, a principle embodied in the US Constitution, but which was not applied then to women.
Instead of betting on a radical change, Ginsburg was reaping small victories that created a legal precedent and on which she was based to, step by step, dismantle the system that allowed discrimination.
Furthermore, Ginsburg came to understand that part of her mission was to “educate” the majority of white men on the Supreme Court who believed there was no error in their worldview.
“In those days, I saw myself as a child teacher because the judges did not believe that gender discrimination existed,” she recalled smiling in a documentary about her life released in 2018.
It was in 1975 when Ginsburg made the magistrates see that gender discrimination was a fundamental problem that hurt men and women equally.
She did so based on the case of Stephen Wiesenfeld, a man who was denied financial aid for widowhood by the Government because it was reserved for women. Ginsburg got the justices to rule unanimously in his favor, and shortly thereafter the Supreme Court agreed to review whether, for centuries, they had acted with a male bias.
In all, Ginsburg argued six cases before the Supreme between 1973 and 1976, of which she won five; while the ACLU Women’s Project participated in 300 complaints in just two years, between 1972 and 1974.
From moderate judge to progressive “scourge”
Ginsburg’s fight for equality acquired a new dimension in 1980, when she left the legal profession to wear the judge’s gown and go to the appeals court of the capital of the United States, where she made a reputation for being moderate and cautious and from where she gave the jump to the Supreme Court in 1993 thanks to the appointment of Democratic President Bill Clinton.
She was the second woman to reach the highest court in the United States, after Sandra Day O’Connor, for whom Ginsburg professed great admiration despite representing opposing poles on an ideological level. In the United States, supreme court judges are appointed by Presidents, who often elect justices who are in accordance with their legal philosophy.
At first, Ginsburg was in the center-left of the political spectrum; But, as the Supreme Court became more conservative, she began to embody more progressive views and took the habit of presenting her arguments in a brief that was published as a private vote, as every time it disagreed with the majority of magistrates. As explained in her biography, Ginsburg understood that these writings were reserved for issues of key importance and gave Congress an opportunity to correct a legal error.
In 2007, that idea became a reality: The judge disagreed with a Supreme Court ruling that allowed women to continue to be victims of wage discrimination and, in response, two years later, Congress passed a law to reverse that situation.
Little by little, her vehement opinions became more colorful and began to attract the attention of the youngest, especially in 2013 when the magistrate opposed ending part of a law that guaranteed the right to vote of African Americans and had been approved in 1965.
In this way, the “Notorious (Reputed) R. B. G.” became an Internet phenomenon that has generated a huge amount of merchandising, including a book detailing the exercises – weights, crunches and squats – that the octogenarian did twice a week with her personal trainer.
She started doing these exercises in 1999 after overcoming colon cancer. That was the beginning of her battle against cancer: in 2009 she overcame pancreatic cancer, in 2018 they had to remove malignant nodules from her left lung and, in the summer of 2019, this disease reappeared in the pancreas, although at that time she had seemed to have beaten it. This year, however, the judge had to face again the pancreatic cancer that has ended up costing her life.
Cancer also took away the love of her life, Martin, whom she met when they were both studying at Cornell University in New York. “He was the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain,” Ginsburg repeated constantly.
The other man in Ginsburg’s life was the late Conservative judge Antonin Scalia, with whom she had a great friendship despite their strong ideological differences and with whom she shared a fascination for opera.
Ginsburg is considered a hero in much of the United States; But, in return, she became the target of hatred from the radical right, who made fun of her age and asked her to leave the post (for life) on the Supreme Court.
When asked when she planned to retire, Ginsburg always responded in a similar way: “I will continue to do this job as long as I can do it, and when I cannot, that will be the moment when I will retire”.