Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 gives remarks in 2007 during the unveiling of a plaque announcing Cornell Law School’s role in establishing the Center for Documentation on American Law at the Cour de Cassation in Paris.
By Blaine Friedlander | September 18, 2020
Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54, whose legal career in the fight for women’s rights, equal rights and human dignity culminated with her ascent to the U.S. Supreme Court, and who – as an octogenarian – became a cultural hero and arguably the most beloved justice in American history, died Sept. 18 in Washington, D.C. She was 87.
Ginsburg died from complications of cancer, according to a statement from the Supreme Court.
Ginsburg’s protection of equality and the advancement of the rights of all people, particularly women, helped to transform American society. Working at the American Civil Liberties Union in 1972, she founded the Women’s Rights Project. She researched and argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court in the 1970s, winning five.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice Byron White in 1993.
Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah had suggested Ginsburg to Clinton, as did U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ’61, an admirer of her legal work. Hatch, considered by President Ronald Reagan for the high court, called Ginsburg a “highly honest and capable jurist.”
Clinton interviewed Ginsburg and later said he was instantly impressed, submitting her nomination to the Senate the next day. Ginsburg sailed through the Senate’s confirmation.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a true hero and a giant of American jurisprudence. A relentless champion of equity, she dedicated her life to innumerable, honorable causes, always fighting for what was right,” said Cornell President Martha E. Pollack. “While the nation mourns her passing, we can find solace in the indelible imprint that she leaves on American society and on the lives of each of us who found inspiration from her actions and who will carry her spirit with us long into the future.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born Joan Ruth Bader on March 15, 1933 in New York City to Celia and Nathan Bader. She grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn and graduated from James Madison High School in 1950.
Her mother Celia died of cancer the day before Ruth’s high school graduation and Ruth missed the ceremony. Years earlier, when Ruth was a toddler, her older sister Marylin observed that Ruth was always kicking. Thus, Marylin had given Ruth her lifelong nickname: “Kiki.” Marylin died at age 6 of meningitis.
Bader Ginsburg’s undergraduate education at Cornell from 1950-54 served as a strong foundation for her subsequent legal education and notable career.
In public talks, the associate justice credited two influential Cornell professors: Robert Cushman, professor of government, and Vladimir Nabokov, then a professor of European literature.
Noted for her precisely worded decisions on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg acknowledged Nabokov’s influence on her own writing. “He was a man in love with the sound of words,” she once said, as he taught her the importance of choosing the correct word and word order.
Nabokov’s first languages were French and Russian; English was his third. “He spoke about what he liked in the English language,” she said once in a talk. “If a speaker wants to say ‘white horse,’ you say ‘white horse’ in the English language.
“You see the white before horse,” she said, “so when you get to the horse, it is already white. In French you say, ‘cheval blanc,’ but you think brown horse first and you have to convert it.”
Joan Ruth Bader majored in government in the College of Arts and Sciences. As an undergraduate, she worked for Cushman as a researcher. He had gained fame as a legal scholar with the influential textbook, “Leading Constitutional Decisions” – a book taught nationally for a quarter century.
Cushman’s influence was equally strong. In the 2016 book, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg: My Own Words,” co-authors Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams describe how the early 1950s kindled Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s (R-Wisconsin) rampant communist fearmongering.
Ginsburg tracked entertainment industry blacklists for Cushman during the McCarthy era, and she cited Cushman for elevating her own awareness of the Constitution and prompting her to apply to law school.
Before that, Ginsburg said, “I didn’t want to think about these things; I really just wanted to get good grades and become successful – but [Cushman] was both a teacher and consciousness raiser.”
In the fall semester of her senior year, Bader provided a glimpse into her thought processes.
Cornell law students once wrote a letter to the Cornell Daily Sun on the topic of wiretapping, suggesting that tapping telephones without warrants was expedient. Ginsburg responded in a Nov. 30, 1953 Cornell Daily Sun letter of her own.
“Wiretapping may save the government investigators a good deal of time and effort by making it unnecessary to seek other sources of proof,” Bader wrote. “But even if the situation today demands increased vigilance on the part of the government, restraints on individual rights in the field of individual privacy, morality and conscience can be a cure worse than the disease …”
She continued: “The … proposal [seems] to be outweighed by the general harm it may well do.”
Over the last six decades, Ginsburg returned to Cornell for lectures and special events. In October 2003, Ginsburg introduced Jeffrey S. Lehman as the university’s 11th president at his inaugural ceremony. She praised Cornell and each of its presidents for the school’s post-Civil War vision of equality in education.
She ended the Barton Hall speech by quoting an 1867 letter from Ezra Cornell to his granddaughter Eunice: “I want to have girls educated in the University, as well as boys so that they have the same opportunity to become wise and useful to society that the boys have.”
Said Ginsburg: “I didn’t know of that letter when I attended Cornell. I would have treasured it then; I treasure it now.”
Life at Cornell
At crowded dances and social gatherings of freshman orientation week for the new class of 1954, “Kiki” Bader stood out, residing in Clara Dickson Hall, the late David Behrens ’54 wrote in a 1993 Newsday feature story.
The dormitory phone never stopped ringing, recalled the late Anita Zicht Fial ’54, who was among the future justice’s close circle of Clara Dickson Hall friends. “It just rang off the hook the whole year, for all of us and for Kiki particularly,” she told Behrens.
An early fall semester blind double date was arranged by the roommate of Martin Ginsburg ’53. The roommate, who was dating a dormitory neighbor of Bader, did not have a car. The roommate persuaded the gregarious Ginsburg – who owned a gray Chevrolet – to drive the foursome to the dance.
“We met as undergraduates at Cornell University on a blind date in 1950 … The truth is, it was a blind date only on Ruth’s side. I cheated. I asked a classmate to point her out in advance,” said Martin Ginsburg in introductory remarks before a Bader Ginsburg lecture.
“’Oh, she’s really cute,’ I perceptively noticed, and then after a couple of evenings out, I added, ‘And… she’s really, really smart.’ And, of course, I was right on both counts,” he said.
At the time, men and women lived in separate campus buildings. Men had more freedom to move about campus at all hours. Cornell women had strict curfews.
Bader participated in the Women’s Self Governance Association, a student government system within residence life. But it would not be until the late 1960s that women attained equal status to men in Cornell’s residence halls.
After graduating from Cornell near the top of her class, Bader married Ginsburg – and followed him to Harvard Law School, becoming one of nine women there in a class of 500. After her husband graduated, joining a law firm in New York City, Bader Ginsburg finished her final year of law school in 1959 at Columbia University.
‘The Notorious R.B.G.’
In the 2013 landmark Supreme Court case, Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529, the court struck down two key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in a 5-4 decision. Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion.
New York University law student Shana Knizhnik was dismayed by the decision, but heartened by Ginsburg’s dissent. Knizhnik created a Tumblr blog, naming it “Notorious R.B.G. – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in all her glory.” The blog helped turn octogenarian Ginsburg into a cultural icon for youth and young adults, creating a modern hero.
Knizhnik and journalist Irin Carmon then turned the blog into a book, “The Notorious R.B.G.” that landed on the New York Times bestseller list, spawning T-shirt sales and other sundries, including a “dissent” jabot sold by Banana Republic that replicates Ginsburg’s lace ruffles adorning her judicial robes.
By 2018, the associate justice’s life story was turned into a major motion picture, “On the Basis of Sex,” with Felicity Jones portraying Ginsburg as a young lawyer.
On the lighter side, Ginsburg has been portrayed by Kate McKinnon on “Saturday Night Live,” and in 2019 the justice even invited late-night television host Stephen Colbert to work out with her at the gym. He could not keep up.
Justice Ginsburg’s cultural popularity never subsided. At the Cornell Reunion in June 2019, Ginsburg surprised Cornelliana Night with a video appearance at her own 65th Reunion before a packed Bailey Hall. When the name “Ruth Bader Ginsburg” lit the screen, the alumni crowd instantly roared. And after she greeted her fellow Cornellians with well wishes, the audience erupted, led by vigorous cheers from the younger Reunion classes: “R-B-G! R-B-G! R-B-G! R-B-G!”
Martin Ginsburg predeceased her in 2010. She is survived by her daughter Jane Ginsburg, a professor of law at Columbia University, and son James Ginsburg, a music executive.