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Women on the Bench

MAKERS Moment

Women on the Bench

More From Ruth Bader

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In this video

Justice Ginsburg recounts the all-too-brief history of women appointed to the judicial bench.

Ruth Bader's Biography

Early Fan: To her amazement, when Ginsburg gave a talk at the University of Arkansas Law School decades ago, a curious then-Governor Bill Clinton showed up to listen.
Close-Knit Family: Ginsburg’s mother’s sister was married to her father’s brother. The two couples combined households and raised their children together.  
Superwoman: Ginsburg’s husband was diagnosed with cancer at the start of their time at Harvard Law School. During his recovery, Ginsburg not only cared for him and their young daughter while maintaining her own course load, she also took notes in all of his classes and typed his dictated papers.
Most Meaningful Advice Received:  From her mother-in-law on her wedding day (accompanied by a packet of earplugs): "Every now and then it helps to be a little deaf...That advice has stood me in good stead. Not simply in dealing with my marriage, but in dealing with my colleagues.”

Long before Ruth Bader Ginsburg became only the second woman ever appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, she broke countless legal and professional barriers for women. Raised in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, Ginsburg graduated first in her class from Cornell University in 1954. She started a family with her college sweetheart Martin Ginsburg and enrolled in Harvard Law School where she was one of only nine women in her class. She became one of the first woman elected to the Harvard Law Review, a feat she repeated at Columbia Law School, where she transferred for her final year.  
Although Ginsburg graduated first in her class from Columbia, she found herself turned away by most law firms and judges who refused to hire a woman. Thanks to the extensive intervention of a Columbia professor, she secured a judicial clerkship in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In 1963, she began teaching at Rutgers University Law School, one of only twenty women or so teaching law in the country at that time. She went on to teach at Columbia Law School from 1972 to 1980 and there became the school's first female tenured professor.
 
At the same time that Ginsburg was setting new professional precedents for women she was turning her attention to their unequal treatment under the law. As a volunteer lawyer at the New Jersey offices of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the 1960s, she saw a growing number of sex discrimination cases brought, thanks to the just-passed 1964 Civil Rights Act’s Title VII. Inspired by these cases and the interest of her students, she began teaching on women in the law and in 1970, co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first law journal in the U.S. to focus exclusively on women's rights. She later co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the ACLU, and as its chief litigator, briefed and argued several landmark cases in front of the Supreme Court. Her victories in those cases directly led to the end of gender discrimination in many areas of the law.  
 
In 1980, President Carter appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. She served there until she was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 by President Clinton. On the court, she has remained a strong voice in favor of gender equality and civil liberties, as well as the rights of workers, and the separation of church and state. In 1996, she wrote the court’s landmark decision in United States v. Virginia, which held that the state-supported Virginia Military Institute could not refuse to admit women. In 1999, she won the American Bar Association's Thurgood Marshall Award for her contributions to gender equality and civil rights.