Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 has emerged as the leader of the Supreme Court’s liberal wing—having voted in favor of such issues as affirmative action, marriage equality, campaign finance limits, gun control, and abortion rights.
A conversation with Ruth Bader Ginsburg '54
By Beth Saulnier
A fter Ruth Bader Ginsburg '54 graduated Columbia Law School tied for first in her class, she was recommended as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter—but she was turned down due to her gender. A generation later, how times had changed: Ginsburg became the second woman to serve on the nation's highest court.
Now eighty, Ginsburg has emerged as the leader of the court's liberal wing, having voted in favor of such issues as affirmative action, marriage equality, campaign finance limits, gun control, and abortion rights. Among her proudest achievements, she says, is United States v. Virginia (1996), in which she wrote the majority opinion in the 7-1 decision that ended the exclusion of women from the Virginia Military Institute. In Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007), she wrote a strong dissent that ultimately prompted Congress to pass a law making it easier for workers to win claims of salary discrimination on the basis of gender.
Born in Brooklyn, the younger daughter of a furrier and a homemaker, Ruth Bader was a stellar student despite personal travails; she lost her sister to meningitis in childhood, and her mother died of cancer the day she graduated from high school. At Cornell—which she attended as a New York State Scholar—she majored in government, pledged Alpha Epsilon Phi, and belonged to the Women's Self-Governance Association. Shortly after graduating Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, she married Martin Ginsburg '53, who'd just completed his first year at Harvard Law. Their first child, Jane, was born during a two-year stint in Oklahoma, where her husband was stationed during military service. She enrolled at Harvard Law in 1956, one of just nine women in a class of more than 500; after two years she transferred to Columbia when her husband—who would become one of the nation's leading tax attorneys, with a client list that included Ross Perot—got a job at a New York firm.
Despite Ginsburg's unimpeachable credentials, no firm in the city made her an offer after she graduated from Columbia. She spent two years as a clerk in the U.S. District Court, pursued an academic career at Columbia and Rutgers, and eventually became a leading legal advocate for gender equality. She argued six cases before the Supreme Court, winning five. Her victories include Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), which prohibited discrimination in military benefits on the basis of gender, and Duren v. Missouri (1979), which struck down a law making jury service optional for women. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter nominated her to the nation's second-highest court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where she served until President Bill Clinton named her to the Supreme Court in 1993. After a relatively low-key review by the Senate Judiciary Committee, she was confirmed 96-3.
Ruth and Marty Ginsburg had a storied union that lasted until his death in 2010 at age seventy-eight. Long before societal shifts in favor of shared household responsibilities, he took an active role in childrearing and—after a now-infamous tuna casserole she served him during his Army days—took charge of the kitchen, teaching himself classic French cuisine from an Escoffier cookbook they'd received as a wedding gift. Daughter Jane is a professor at Columbia Law School; the couple's second child, James, runs a classical music label. Ginsburg has four grandchildren.
Now the eldest member of the Supreme Court, Ginsburg—who has twice survived cancer—has recently faced predictable pressure to retire while President Obama remains in office. "It's a logical question to ask considering my age," she admits—but she has no plans to step down, being in full possession of her faculties. And after all: Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010, served robustly until the age of ninety.
In mid-August, Ginsburg sat down with CAM in her chambers, whose décor includes modern art, dozens of family photos, a Ruth Bader Ginsburg bobblehead, and a sugar cake-topper depicting her as her favorite opera character: the Marschallin, Princess von Werdenberg, in Der Rosenkavalier.