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As I write October’s IAN Column, the body of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg lies in repose in the Supreme Court of the United States, Washington DC. It was with a heavy heart that I learned of the passing of the Notorious RBG last week. As a female lawyer and even more so, as a female lawyer who wanted a career and a family, I owe a lot to Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
This month I felt compelled to honor her memory and reflect on her legacy on this Country, it’s Constitution and its people. She was born to Russian Jewish Immigrant parents, Joan Ruth Bader on March 15, 1933, in Brooklyn New York. Her older sister died when she was a baby and her mother died from cancer, the day before Ruth graduated High School. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Cornell University where she met and married the true love of her life, Marty D. Ginsberg. Ruth said of her Husband that he was “the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain”.
After they married and had their first child, they both, desirous of becoming lawyers, attended the prestigious Harvard Law School, with Ruth taking a seat in a law class of 552 men and just eight other women. During her second year at Harvard, Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Ruth cared for him, their daughter Jane, took her classes and also ensured Marty was up to date with his classes, so he would not fall behind during his illness. At times she worried about managing the school’s rigorous coursework, a sick Husband and young child but heeding advice from her Father, that “if you really want to study law, you will stop worrying and find a way to manage child and school”, she persisted and found a way.
Upon graduation, Marty who was year ahead of Ruth at Harvard, accepted a position in New York and she moved with him finishing out her law degree at Columbia Law School, where she graduated top of her class. The couple supported each other’s respective careers fiercely, with each taking on child care responsibilities when the other’s time was more focused on other matters. One of my favorite quotes of Justice Ginsberg is when she stated that “Women will only have true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation”. Once when their Son James got into trouble at Grade school, the headmaster made a call to Ruth, who gave him a well deserved earful by pointing out “This child has two parents. You must alternate the calls from now on, starting with this one”.
After law school she entered academia initially as a professor at Rutgers Law School and thereafter at Columbia Law school, teaching civil procedure as one of the few women in her field. In 1972 she co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), later becoming a member of its board and then its General Counsel. In this role she argued 6 gender discrimination cases before the United States Supreme Court, winning five.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to her first judicial post at the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. She served on this position until 1993 when she was appointed as only the second female Judge on the Supreme Court of the United States, by President Bill Clinton. Through her advocacy as a litigator and later as a Judge, Ruth Bader Ginsberg revolutionized the law and made incredible progress toward gender equality in this Country.
As a Judge, Ginsburg was considered part of the Supreme Court’s moderate liberal bloc, presenting a strong voice in favor of gender equality, the rights of workers and the separation of Church and State. In 1966, she wrote the Court’s landmark decision in United States v Virginia, which held that the state supported Virginial Military Institute, could not refuse to admit women. Despite her reputation for restrained writing, she quickly gathered considerable attention for her dissenting (disagreeing with the majority) opinions.
Married for 56 years, Ruth lost her beloved Marty to cancer in 2010. Marty, before his death provided a reason for their long and successful union, “ My wife doesn’t give me any advice about cooking and I don’t give her any advice about the law”.
While on and off the bench Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg worked tirelessly for the equality rights of women. Her brilliance and bravery inspired and paved the way for so many. She sacrificed a well-deserved retirement and battled various forms of cancer numerous times, all the while displaying a steadfast commitment to her position on the highest court of the land. We must honor her legacy by continuing her fight for justice, equality and inclusion for all women, regardless of race, class or religion. And we as female lawyers, have a particular ability and responsibility to do so. Thank you Justice, today we mourn you, tomorrow we get back to work.
*Caroleann Gallagher is an Irish born Attorney now licensed in Illinois and practicing all types of personal injury law – including nursing home litigation, medical malpractice law, wrongful death claims, transportation injuries, premises liability claims, defective product claims, construction site injuries and Workers Compensation. She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at 312-543-4642.
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