by Maura Campbell ’22
Ruth Bader Ginsburg—Supreme Court Justice, feminist, and cultural icon—passed away in her Washington, D.C. home on Friday, Sept. 18, at the age of 87. Ginsburg died due to complications related to pancreatic cancer, for which she had been treated since her diagnosis in 2009.
The Supreme Court announced Justice Ginsburg’s death in a statement on Friday night. “Our nation has lost a justice of historic stature,” Chief Justice John Roberts said. “We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her—a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”
Throughout her entire legal career, including her 27 years on the nation’s highest court, Ginsburg led the legal fight for women’s rights in the United States. Even before her appointment to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg changed the course of American law as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project, arguing several gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court. The most notable of these cases include Reed v. Reed in 1971, which struck down an Idaho law favoring men over women in estate battles. This victory would eventually extend to the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, barring laws that discriminated by sex. Other notable victories include Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), which barred gender discrimination in benefits of military members, and Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), which barred gender discrimination in state benefits.
Justice Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court by former President Bill Clinton in 1993, where she continued her legal work as the second-ever woman on the Supreme Court. Finding herself consistently in the minority, Justice Ginsburg often used her extensive legal knowledge and talents to write passionate dissents on the Court’s majority opinions. Regarding these dissents, she said, “Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become Court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg quickly became a cultural icon. By the time she was in her 80s, she was the subject of a documentary, a biopic, and an opera. She was portrayed in several episodes of “Saturday Night Live” and featured on a Time magazine cover. Nicknamed “Notorious RBG,” Justice Ginsburg was viewed as unbreakably intertwined with the fight for women’s rights and beloved by millions.
The response to Ginsburg’s death has been overwhelming. Former President Jimmy Carter described her as a “powerful legal mind and a staunch advocate for gender equality”; President Donald Trump called her “an amazing woman who led an amazing life”; Senator Chuck Schumer tweeted a statement describing her as “a giant in American history, a champion for justice, a trailblazer for women”; and Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted that Ginsburg “will be remembered as one of the great justices in modern American history.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ordered the flags at the Capitol to be flown at half-mast in Justice Ginsburg’s honor.
It is impossible to overstate the extent of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s influence in the United States. Throughout her career, she broke countless barriers and defied numerous stereotypes. Ginsburg would often speak of how her family represented the American Dream: her mother was a factory worker, and Ruth, only one generation later, was a Supreme Court Justice.
Although Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died, her legacy will live on in the women whose lives she impacted and careers she made possible through her legal work.