An Eternal Girl Boss: the Life and Work of the Notorious R.B.G

An article by Cynthia Chiu about Ruth Bader Ginsburg

An article by Cynthia Chiu

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “the notorious R.B.G.”, or the endearing “KiKi” — these are just a few names the legal giant has been known by. The Justice passed away on Friday, 18 September at the age of eighty-seven.

The feminist icon fought (and won) landmark cases in America’s legal history, advancing equality under the law. Her passing is considered not only as a great loss to the American supreme court, but also to the fight for human rights.

We hope to celebrate and broadcast her efforts as loudly as we can in this mini article.

Life before the bench

A level-headed trailblazer, R.B.G.’s strategy for advancing civil rights was as considered as her words were sharp. In 1972, Ginsburg began her first jobs as a professor at Columbia Law, and as a litigator co-directing the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Ginsburg put the law under a microscope and set precedence to destroy 200 laws that were sexist in nature. By 1974, the Project had contributed to nearly 300 cases concerning gender discrimination.

Whilst the cases she participated in were vast in number, 5 of them should be considered historical turning points as their legacy was powerful: through them, the Equal Rights Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment was extended to women. Ginsburg picked cases that helped women gain power both socially and financially. To begin with, Ginsburg wrote the brief for Reed v Reed (1971) which ruled against gender discrimination in the naming of estate administrators. This was the first case for which the Supreme Court ruled that sexism was unconstitutional in light of the Equal Rights Protection Clause. Following this, Frontiero v Richardson (1973) victoriously overthrew a statute that justified unequal distribution of compensation for military members’ families because of their gender. 

“This was a litigator who was in the business of maximizing her chances of prevailing over sexism”

Her skillfulness is perhaps best reflected in how she went about arguing her cases. In Craig v Boren (1976), Ginsburg used an argument of equal obligation in both men and women which subjugated discriminatory state laws to “intermediate” examination, liberating women in return. Not only that, choosing to represent male clients alike — most renowned in Weinberger v Wiesenfeld (1975) — helped her demonstrate how gender discrimination does not discriminate in picking its victims.

The recent autobiographical movie of hers, On the Basis of Sex, revealed how she replaced the word ‘sex’ with ‘gender’ in briefs and arguments upon the suggestion of an associate. This was a litigator who was in the business of maximizing her chances of prevailing over sexism.

“The Great Dissenter” 

Poised but outspoken — Ginsburg is renowned for using her prerogative power to assert dissents when she saw fit. Her efforts allowed politicians to make real changes in society. This is a Justice who, in the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s words, “has done more to shape the law in this field than any other justice on this court.” Even her signature look — lace collar on black robe — was a rebellious statement. In an interview in 2014, the Justice pointed out how the black robe was designed in such a way that fits traditionally masculine outfits, her fashion choice poses a deliberate challenge towards the design in a way that celebrates her feminine grace. (i.e. makes her look damn good.)

One of the most notable instances has to be when she called out her fellow justices for being “indifferent” to the gender pay gap in Ledbetter v Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Although her opinion was not backed in court at the time, her remarks prompted Obama to introduce the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as his first legislation. 

“This was an erudite legal mind who backed her beliefs with fierce dissents regardless of the majority’s opinion”

With her savvy arguments, she argued for women’s right to decide whether or not to get an abortion, making the point that “the government has no business making that choice for a woman” (2009), followed by reading aloud a 35-page dissent to the Hobby Lobby ruling (2014) supporting for-profit companies’ denial of contraceptives for their employees. She helped approve gay marriage, pointing out how the ability to procreate cannot determine whether a couple should be able to marry (Obergefell v Hodges 2015). This was an erudite legal mind who backed her beliefs with fierce dissents regardless of the majority’s opinion. This was a justice who, born in a family of “first… and barely second-generation” immigrants, saw how America was impregnated with opportunity to change and possibilities (in her own words at her confirmation “what has become of me could only happen in America”) — she dedicated her life to utilizing this to do good.

Passionately reasoned

Honored in current pop-culture as a feminist and human rights icon, her career path was not all smooth-sailing because she was a woman. Since her Harvard days, she (along with all 9 other female students in her year) was questioned by the Dean then about her reasons for being “at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man”. In addition to this, although she was later rewarded with an honorary degree from Harvard, she was denied this initially as she decided to transfer to Columbia. 

After graduating top of her class, she was denied a clerkship with the supreme court justice Felix Frankfurter, who justified his decision by saying that he was not “ready” to hire a woman. Even her appointment to the bench came with Clinton’s own worries — “the women [of the 90s] are against her” — as she was not a feminist who fought by ‘burning a bra or tossing a high heel’, according to Time magazine. In 2016, her disapproval of the national anthem protest drew many Black Lives Matter supporters to question her liberalism, arguing that she is more a conservative than an actual liberal.

“Perhaps the most important question of all is in fact, how she would have liked her legacy to be carried on”

What the Justice supports was a way of doing things that combines passion with reason. The Justice once wrote this in an opinion piece for the New York Times: “When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.” She urged people to “fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” It has been reported that, throughout her years of service, she had not raised her voice once. 

Now that she has died, supporters worldwide mourn her death and honor her efforts. Deliberations and comments about why she refused to step down, who should replace her, how her resilience was displayed in her personal life, what her legacy is… perhaps the most important question of all is in fact, how she would have liked her legacy to be carried on. 

What do you think of her work and the way she fights for human rights issues? 


Please comment below to discuss the life and work of R.B.G and have a look at our past Girl Bosses of the Week here.