During the Victorian era, reading was thought to cause “undeveloped ovaries” in women, because it drew them away from their primary role of reproduction. The esteemed Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the same doctor who gave us Cornflakes cereal, thought that reading was, “one of the most pernicious [evil] habits to which a young lady can be devoted. When the habit is once thoroughly fixed, it becomes as inveterate [habitual] as the use of liquor or opium.”
Then we fast forward to the 70’s where women still could not get a charge card without their husband’s co-signature, neither could they own property in their own name. And if she wanted to run in the Boston Marathon? Forget it. That wasn’t allowed until 1972. Before that, women were relegated to handing off cups of water on Heartbreak Hill to the all-male runners. She could also be fired for just for being pregnant, until the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in 1978 to protect her employment.
Yes, women have had to overcome a few obstacles, but a few shining luminaries have been there to make the struggle easier. One of these women, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, rose to the heights of judicial power in the female-suppressing climate, to become an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. With decades of research she performed, that enabled her to reach these heights, Dr. Kellogg would have surely deemed her devoid of ovaries by now.
Who is Ruth Bader Ginsberg?
She’s 87, soft-spoken, and only 5’1”, but don’t let her diminutive stature fool you. NPR’s Nina Totenberg once said of her: “She has this soft little tiny voice, and she can say really devastating things in that quiet voice.”
It took her some time to find that voice. Brooklyn born and raised, she finished first in her class at Cornell, where she met her husband Martin D. Ginsburg, of whom she attributes her success. Like Ruth, theirs was an unconventional marriage. At Harvard, where they both learned to balance life and academia, she became the first female member of the prestigious Harvard Review and had their first child, Jane. Martin contracted testicular cancer and she nursed him back to health while, at the same time, took notes for him in classes– as she continued her own law studies.
When she graduated, despite her illustrious academic record, no law firm in New York would hire her. She continued to encounter gender discrimination throughout her career. After clerking for U.S. District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri, Ginsburg taught at Rutgers University Law School and at Columbia, where she became the school’s first female tenured professor. She also served as the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union during the 1970’s, for which she argued six landmark cases on gender equality, before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ginsberg has remained a life-long friend of Steven Weisenfeld, the inspiration for that Supreme Court decision, whose wife died in childbirth leaving him to raise his son, Jason, alone. She even officiated at Jason’s wedding. Because of her, men can now receive widower benefits if their wife should die before them.
Although her fight for gender equality concerned mostly women, she recognized any form of inequality as necessitating change. One of the five cases she won before the Supreme Court involved a portion of the Social Security Act that favored women over men, because it granted certain benefits to widows, but not widowers.
Ginsburg in Summary
Although she is best known for law, there’s a wealth of personality concealed by her judge’s robes, that she brings to the Supreme Court bench each day. For instance, she and Judge Scalia, a conservative, were “best buddies”. Her lace collars, gifts from her many admirers, are arranged according to court proceedings for each day. There’s a row of collars in her closet for opinions and another row for dissents. Then there’s a row of collars for when the day’s work requires more contemplation than the pound of a gavel could possibly reveal. She works out daily. She’s survived two forms of cancer including the deadly pancreatic cancer in her 70’s. She loves opera. And when her husband Martin died on June 27, 2010, she went to work the next day, the last day of the 2010 term.
There’s longevity, then there’s a long life lived well, imprinted upon the hearts of a nation and upon the laws of the land. That’s Judge Ginsburg. She may be 87, but she’ll continue to inspire and literally set the record straight, until her time on the bench is over. But she’s not going anywhere, soon.
1. In My Own Words, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mary Harnett and Wendy W. Williams. Simon and Schuster, 2016.
2. 10 Things That American Women Could Not Do Before the 1970s.