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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Legal Pioneer

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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, N.Y., 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 forth thanks to the recently 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.

Video Transcript

RUTH BADER GINSBURG: The Dean greeted the women in the first year class with an invitation to dinner at his home. And we thought, Oh how thoughtful. The Dean brought us into his living room and called on each of us to tell him in turn why we were at the Harvard Law School occupying a seat that could be held by a man.

You felt in class as if all eyes were on you, and that if you didn't perform well you would be failing not only for yourself, but for all women. I attribute part of my success in law school to my daughter. She was 14 months old when I started. I mean, every day at 4 o'clock, my time at the law school was over and it was children's time. Each was a respite from the other. When my daughter went to sleep I was happy to go back to the books.

Employers were above board open about it. They would say, we had a woman lawyer once and was she dreadful.

Our strategy was the soul of simplicity. It was to go after the stereotypes that were written into law. Like the first case I argued here was "Frontiero v. Richardson." She is a Lieutenant in the Air Force. She gets no housing allowance for being a married officer, and her husband doesn't have access to the base medical and dental facilities.

It was an afternoon argument. I didn't eat lunch because he was afraid I wouldn't retain it. When I got to the podium I was at first terribly nervous, and then looked up at the justices and thought to myself, these are the most important judges in the United States, and they have to listen to me. They have no place to go.

Sex, like race, has been made the basis for unjustified, or at least unproved, assumptions concerning an individual's potential to perform or to contribute to society. These distinctions have a common effect. They help keep woman in her place, a place inferior to that occupied by men in our society.

My dear husband, Marty, left his very successful practice in New York to Washington D.C. so that we would have our life together here. He was a remarkable man. He was so comfortable about himself that he never regarded me as being any kind of a threat. He was also a fabulous cook.

I was on cloud nine. People asked me what it felt like coming out to the Rose Garden with the president, and the first thing that came into my head, well, it felt a little bit like being a bride.

BILL CLINTON: Over the course of a lifetime, in her pioneering work in behalf of the women of this country, she has compiled a truly historic record of achievement.

RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Well it is a picture now. It's some difference. People certainly know that women are present on the court. We are all over the bench. And we are certainly here to stay.