Do you know what a judge is or a lawyer? Judges and lawyers are jobs people have where they work to make laws. Laws are used to keep us safe and keep order in the world, but sometimes laws are made that are unfair. And sometimes new laws need to be made to help people be treated equally. In this episode, we will talk about one of the most important people in the fight for women’s equality: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Ruth was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. When she was born, her name was actually “Joan Ruth Bader” but when she was in first grade, there were many “Joans” in class. Her mother told her teacher that everyone could call her “Ruth” instead. So from then on “Joan Bader” was called “Ruth”.
Her parents were hard-working, but they were not rich. They were Jewish and brought her to the synagogue, or Jewish temple, regularly to study the Torah or Jewish holy book. From a young age, Ruth was annoyed to learn that women were not allowed to read from the Torah, only men could. She was unhappy that she was treated differently.
Ruth’s mom was a very independent woman. Independent means to do things on your own. She was very close with Ruth and taught her that it was important for Ruth to get a good education and be independent, too. She took a close interest in her education. Although her mother had gotten excellent grades in high school, she finished when she was 15 and wasn’t able to go to university. Instead, she had to go work in a clothing-making factory to help pay for her brother to go to college. Ruth’s mother wanted to help Ruth get into university and study to become a high school history teacher.
Ruth liked studying with her mother and it helped her to excel, or do really well. She was also inspired by what her mother had done for her brother. Working in a factory to help pay for his education was an act of selflessness that stuck with Ruth. An act of selflessness is something that someone does to help another person without any thought of what it will do for themself.
Ruth worked very hard in high school and got excellent grades. Sadly, Ruth’s mother got sick with cancer when Ruth was in high school and died the day before Ruth graduated.
Ruth had studied so hard and gotten such good grades that she got into Cornell University. This is one of the best universities in the United States so it was a huge accomplishment.
While she was at Cornell, Ruth studied government. Very early in her time there, she met a young man named Martin Ginsburg. They started dating and fell in love. Martin was studying law and he told Ruth about what he was learning. She started thinking that she might also want to study law. First, however, she needed to finish her other degree. She did so in 1954 and graduated at the top of the class, which means that she had the best grades of anyone in her entire university class that year.
Martin and Ruth decided to get married and they had their wedding one month after Ruth graduated. Ruth added Martin’s last name to hers and her new name became “Ruth Bader Ginsburg”.
Shortly after they got married, Ruth got pregnant and had a baby girl named Jane. Very soon after, Martin was drafted into the US military. Drafted means when someone is told that they have to join the army. Martin served for two years in the army before he was allowed to go back to regular life.
After Martin was finished with the army, Ruth and Martin returned to Harvard so that he could complete his law studies. Ruth continued to be interested in studying law as well, so she also started law school at Harvard.
When Ruth started law school, it was a difficult time for her. She had to find time to study and she also had to take care of her baby Jane. It was hard to do both! But Ruth was very hard working and found a way, together with Martin’s help.
Ruth also had to deal with challenges at law school. She was one of only 8 women students in a class of more than 500. All the other students were men and many did not like that there were women joining the program. They tried to make it uncomfortable for the women students that were studying with them by teasing them and making it harder for them to do well in class. Back then, many people thought that only men should go to law school, so they directed their anger toward Ruth and her female classmates.
But Ruth pressed on and studied very hard. And it all paid off in the end! As always, Ruth did very well in her courses. She also became the first female member of the Harvard Law Review, which is one of the most famous legal journals in the world. This was a very difficult role to get.
In 1956, Ruth’s husband was diagnosed with cancer. He needed to go to the hospital for surgery and Ruth needed to take care of him. She was at a crossroads, or the point of a big decision, in her life. Should she stay in law school or take time off with her family? Should Martin take time off as well, even though he had already had to take time off before? They talked it through and decided that they would both stay in school and finish their degrees together, even when Martin was sick. Ruth continued to go to class and she took notes for Martin in class. Martin started doing more around the house to help out, including doing the cooking. This was not common at the time: for the man of the house to be at home full time caring for children and taking care of the housework. But it helped to shape how Ruth thought about equality and what is expected of women in society.
With medical treatment and Ruth’s help, Martin got better and he was able to return to school and finish his studies. He graduated from law school and got a job as a lawyer in New York. Because Martin’s job was in New York, Ruth moved to Columbia Law school in New York and finished her degree there. Ruth graduated first in her class in 1959.
Next, Ruth looked for a job, but she found many law firms didn’t want to hire her because she was a woman. It is hard to believe now, but back then in America, it was not common for women to work outside of the home. And there were really not many women in professional jobs like law. So Ruth was really doing something new and when that happens, often people resist or fight against, it. Big changes in society, like women’s equality, take years to change.
Eventually, Ruth found a job as a law clerk, which is a researcher who works for a judge. After two years in that job she became a university law professor. Despite being very busy, as a professor and mom, Ruth also volunteered her time to the Women’s Rights Project. To volunteer means to do something for free because you want to make a difference. Ruth’s volunteer work for this project involved winning 6 very important trials in U.S. courts on cases about women’s equality.
In 1980, Ruth was awarded a very important job: President Jimmy Carter appointed her to be a Judge with the Court of Appeals. She continued to work very hard and to work for equality for women and others. In 1993, she was appointed to be a judge on the U.S. Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton. The Supreme Court is the highest level of court in America and makes decisions about the most important cases from around the country.
As a judge, Ruth’s decisions favored a moderate approach. She was a big supporter of equality between men and women and of the rights of workers and the separation of church and state. This means that she believed that the government should not be influenced by religion. She wrote an important decision that said that the military could not refuse to allow women to join. She won awards for her work and what she did to help defend peoples’ rights. She worked hard in the coming years to be an excellent judge and to provide lots of reasoning that have been very influential on American laws.
In 2016, Ruth released a book about her life memories called “My Own Words.” She became famous for her thoughtful attitude and her style, as well as her famous expression, “I dissent.” Later in her life, people made t-shirts with her image and this expression and she became an icon, or symbol, for her beliefs. People began calling her RBG, her initials for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Ruth’s health started to get worse in the later years of her life. She had cancer a few times and had surgery for each. However, she continued to fight each time and grow healthy so she could continue her important work.
In July 2020, Ruth revealed that her cancer had returned. She died in September of that year. She was laid to rest in the state in the Capitol on September 25. She was the first woman and the second Supreme Court Judge to have this honor.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is remembered for her hard work throughout her life, arguing for the fair treatment of women. There are many things we can learn from Ruth, including hard work and resilience. Resilience means the ability to carry on even when life is hard. She was also determined, which means that she was focused on her goal and positive that she would make it happen. Once she decided she wanted to become a lawyer, she worked very hard to make that happen, even though she had to take care of her husband and her young child. She was also brave. At law school, she was teased and sometimes bullied by her male classmates. But she still worked hard to finish and become a lawyer.
What are some things in society that you think are unfair? Who are people that you would like to see helped more by society or treated with more fairness and kindness? Becoming a judge or a lawyer is one way to support others who need help. What are some ways you can spend time helping others who need help?
Spend some time thinking about the things that others have done that are good and help others. Think about some of the things Ruth accomplished in her life. What can you learn from her life about your own future path? No matter what you decide to do, Ruth would encourage you to work hard, stick with what you believe and treat everyone with equal respect.