Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the US Supreme Court and its most determined advocate for gender equality, has died at the age of 87. She had endured multiple bouts of cancer before succumbing to the disease.
Unusually for a Supreme Court justice, in her later life Ginsburg became a national cult figure. She was nicknamed “The Notorious RBG”; movies and television programmes were made about her; even her exercise regime was avidly followed, all of which she took with typical modesty and a wry smile.
Ginsburg’s own early professional life was an embodiment of the discrimination practised against women. She was a brilliant student, who graduated tied for first in her class at Columbia Law School, having transferred from Harvard where she served on the prestigious Harvard Law Review. Yet all her applications to New York law firms were rejected. Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter refused to even grant her an interview for a clerkship.
She turned that experience into a life-long crusade, operating within, not outside, the legal system, as a university professor, advocate and judge. Her elevation to the highest bench in 1993 by president Bill Clinton was recognition of her considerable achievements, and her service on the court, where she was among its most liberal members in a conservative era, was equally distinguished.
Ruth Joan Bader was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 15 1933, the daughter of Jewish immigrants. Her father, a furrier and haberdasher, emigrated to the US from Ukraine and her mother was born in New York to parents from Austria. She earned her first degree from Cornell University, where she met Martin Ginsburg after married him after graduation.
After having their daughter, Jane, Ruth joined Martin at Harvard Law School. When he was diagnosed with cancer, Ruth attended classes for both of them. After he graduated, he was recruited by a New York law firm, so they moved to the city and she transferred to Columbia. Despite her early rejections, she served as a clerk to Edmund Palmieri, a federal district judge, who later rated her one his best-ever law clerks.
She then spent three years on a Columbia project on the Swedish judicial system, which required her to learn the language, Ginsburg joined the law faculty at Rutgers University, only the second woman ever on its staff. While pregnant with her son James, she concealed her pregnancy, by wearing her mother’s larger clothes, because she had not yet been granted tenure.
Her experiences, and reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, inspired her to focus on gender discrimination, at Rutgers, later back at Columbia and as a volunteer lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, where she founded its women’s rights project in the 1970s. As the project’s general counsel, she argued six discrimination cases in front of the Supreme Court, winning five of them, including a landmark decision in which she represented a widower denied the Social Security benefits that were granted to widows.
In 1980, then-president Jimmy Carter appointed her to the US appeals court for the DC circuit. The Ginsburgs moved to Washington where her husband became a law professor at Georgetown University. In nominating Ruth to a Supreme Court vacancy in 1993 on the retirement of Byron White, Mr Clinton said he was looking for someone with “a fine mind, good judgment, wide experience in the law and in the problems of real people, and somebody with a big heart”.
Although Ginsberg was joined a year later by another liberal, Stephen Breyer, the court was dominated by conservatives, with the two Clinton nominees in an invariable minority of four unless they could win the support, on some issues, of more conservative colleagues. That essential balance was not changed by subsequent appointments.
Ginsburg joined the first woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor. Though often ideologically far apart, they combined to thwart successive challenges to Roe vs Wade, the 1973 ruling establishing a woman’s right to abort a pregnancy. Ginsburg was also, along with Justice Breyer, convinced that the Supreme Court should not ignore foreign legal precedent and practice in setting standards for the US.
Like her colleagues, when Ginsburg felt particularly strongly that the court was making a mistake, she would dissent from majority rulings not just in writing but orally from the bench. Most vividly, after a 2007 ruling that outlawed a type of late term abortion known as “partial birth”, she quivered with anger in declaring that the protection of reproductive rights was not a matter of “some vague and generalised notion of privacy”, but of “a woman’s autonomy to decide for herself her life’s course, and thus enjoy equal citizenship stature”.
Yet her firm beliefs did not prevent her from forming a warm relationship with the court’s chief ideologue on the right, Antonin Scalia. He was a frequent dining companion and fellow opera lover (she once appeared as an extra in a Washington Opera production) with whom she was once photographed riding an elephant. Her other pastimes included skiing, both on snow and water, and horseback riding.
Ginsburg’s judicial legacy is substantial, not least for the precision and quality of her opinions, often restrained in language but always logical, earning her admirers numbering in the millions. Her husband died in 2010 and she is survived by her two children.