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Once upon a time, there was a girl with a mighty voice. Her name was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Though she seemed quiet and shy, Ruth was brilliant with a quick mind and a big heart. When Ruth learned about lawyers who worked to ensure people were treated fairly, she dreamed of becoming one. She was determined to make the world a more equal place for women, men, immigrants, and people of color. And she did just that, first as a lawyer, and then as a judge. Ruth made history as a voice for oppressed people in America and as “The Great Dissenter” on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Priscilla Chan is co-founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. As a pediatrician and teacher, Priscilla’s work with patients and students in communities across the Bay Area has informed her desire to make learning more personalized, find new paths to manage and cure disease and expand opportunities for more people. She is also the founder of The Primary School, which integrates health and education and serves children and families in East Palo Alto and the Belle Haven neighborhood in Menlo Park, California. Priscilla earned her BA in Biology at Harvard University and her MD at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). She completed her pediatrics training in the UCSF/PLUS Pediatrics Residency.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG
Supreme Court Justice
Once upon a time, there was a quiet girl who would grow up to have a mighty voice. Her name was Ruth.
Ruth lived in Brooklyn, New York. Some of her neighbors were from Italy, and others were from Ireland. Some spoke Polish and others German. Some went to church, and others, like her, went to synagogue.
Most afternoons, Ruth rode her bike with her cousin Richard and the other neighborhood boys. And when they played pretend, she imagined she was a pirate or a secret agent. To escape the “bad guys,” she would often climb up on her neighbor’s garage and jump from rooftop to rooftop.
But when she got to school, she was expected to hide her adventurous side. Teachers told her to act more ladylike. In fact, some of what they learned—like cooking and sewing—were supposed to make the girls better mothers and housewives.
Ruth wondered why girls had to take home economics—Ruth hated cooking—while boys got to learn fun lessons in shop class, like how to use a saw and build bookshelves.
I’m PRISCILLA CHAN ZUCKERBERG. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
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TOP OF HER CLASS
Ruth’s mother, Celia, had graduated at the top of her high school class, but she did not have the chance to go to college, because her family had only saved money for her brother’s education. Celia wanted things to be different for Ruth. She had high expectations for her daughter’s academic career.
So, she helped Ruth with her homework and never accepted less than an A. She taught her daughter about strong, independent women who had made a difference in the world—like Eleanor Roosevelt, who advocated tirelessly on behalf of women, people of color, and the poor; or Amelia Earhart, a fearless pilot who had flown across the Atlantic ocean.
By the end of her senior year of high school, Ruth was the feature editor of the school newspaper; twirled baton and played cello; had multiple college scholarships; and was ranked as one of the top students in her class, just like Celia had been.
Celia was proud, but also worried. She was sick with cancer and hoped she would live at least to see Ruth’s high school graduation. Sadly, she passed away just a few days before.
Grief clung to her, allowing only shallow breaths. Ruth thought about staying home to take care of her father, but she knew her mom wouldn’t want her to give up.
So, she stuffed her luggage into her father’s car and headed to Cornell University. As New York City gave way to the rolling countryside, Ruth felt hope shooting out of every green leaf.
Many young women had come to Cornell to find husbands instead of learning. And if a woman wanted a man to ask her out, she had to pretend to be less smart than he was.
Ruth dated a few men during her first year, but most seemed to be looking for a wife who would cook and clean. She had a different kind of life in mind—one that involved more than keeping the house for her husband.
In her second year at Cornell she met a new kind of man.
Marty Ginsburg was tall and outgoing, while Ruth was small and shy. She was very serious, but somehow, Marty made her laugh, and he was the first man who cared that she had a brain.
When Ruth learned about lawyers who worked to make sure people were treated fairly, she dreamed of becoming one. Marty knew she wanted to make the world a better place, and he wanted to be right there with her.
“Why don’t we both become lawyers?” Ruth suggested, and Marty wholeheartedly agreed.
So, after they graduated from Cornell, Marty and Ruth got married and took a break from school to save some money.
Two years later, they had saved enough to pursue their law degrees—now with their 14-month old daughter Jane in tow.
A LEAGUE OF HER OWN
When Ruth entered Harvard Law, there were more than five hundred students—and only nine were women. Women had been admitted for a few years now, but they still weren’t treated equally. Some professors viewed women as “too delicate” for the rigours of law school so they refused to call on female students in class. And Ruth was once refused entry to a certain section of the library because it was for “men only.”
Things only got tougher in her second year.
Marty was sick.
When the test results came back and the doctor came to discuss Marty’s treatment options, the only word Ruth heard was “Cancer.” The word rang in Ruth’s head as the doctor spoke. Her chest felt tight, and heat flooded into her cheeks.
No, Ruth thought. Not again.
Ruth drove Marty to his treatments and did his share of the household chores. Then, she went to school each morning, took care of their daughter in the afternoons, and and spent the evening typing up lecture notes she borrowed from Marty’s classmates. Then, after Marty went to bed, Ruth would do her own homework—often until the sun came up.
If she could make it through this, she realized, she could make it through anything.
Thanks to Ruth’s support, Marty recovered, finished his final year of law school, and took a position at a firm in New York City. Ruth dreaded the idea of Marty moving by himself—of their family being separated while he was still recovering.
So she transferred to Columbia Law School in New York and graduated first in her class.
INJUSTICE FOR ONE, INJUSTICE FOR ALL
When Ruth finished law school, no law office or court would hire her.
One law firm had already hired a woman—and didn’t feel like they needed another. One judge refused to hire women as clerks because he thought it was impolite to swear in front of a lady, and he didn’t want to have to “watch his language.” Sometimes, job listings even read “men only, no women need apply.”
Finally, Ruth got two interviews. At each one, she sat across a table from men in dark, neatly pressed suits, and when they asked her questions, she answered clearly and deliberately. When she got home, however, no calls ever came.
After months and months of searching, a judge begrudgingly hired her as a clerk—only to be pleasantly surprised by her smarts and hard work.
Ruth was an excellent lawyer, and people started coming to her with important cases. One woman was told to resign after she became pregnant on the job. One man was denied widow benefits because only a widowed woman could receive them. Countless working women didn’t receive pay equal to their male counterparts. Girls were denied entrance to schools and sports teams.
Some of these cases even made it to the highest court in the land: The United States Supreme Court.
Many women were marching in the streets for equal rights, but Ruth chose to fight back in the courtroom.
AND MAY IT PLEASE THE COURT
On a chilly day in January, Ruth walked up the big, marble steps to the entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court. She had dressed carefully that morning, wearing her mother’s antique earrings and broach.
Inside, nine male justices in black robes sat behind a long, dark wooden bench framed by huge marble columns and velvety curtains that hung from the ceiling.
Ruth was representing Air Force Lieutenant Sharron Frontiero who had recently married a Navy veteran and full-time college student. After Sharron’s male colleagues had married, they’d received extra money for housing—funds Sharron’s young family could have used to help pay the bills. But Sharron was told that because she supported her husband, she wouldn’t be getting any benefits—he was supposed to be supporting her.
And if he couldn’t, well, that was just too bad.
When it was Ruth’s turn to speak, she stood behind a small wooden lectern. Behind her, the hushed audience—including her husband Marty—waited for her to begin.
“Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the court,” Ruth began, her voice shaking a little. She told the justices about Frontiero and the harmful laws that treated men and women differently. As she spoke, her voice became more and more powerful.
During her speech, the justices didn’t ask a single question, which was rare. Oftentimes, lawyers were put on the defensive—interrupted so frequently they couldn’t get their arguments out. When she finished, Ruth worried that maybe they weren’t even listening.
But, a few months later, she found out she’d won the case.
When Justice William Brennan announced the decision, he echoed Ruth’s words from her closing argument: “[America] has had a long and unfortunate history of sex discrimination, [which] put women not on a pedestal, but in a cage.”
Sharron was overjoyed by the ruling and received the money that the Air Force owed her.
But when Ruth heard the news, she was less pleased. She had wanted the court to rule that all gender discrimination was wrong.
BEHIND THE BENCH
Ruth went on to argue six cases in front of the Supreme Court and won five of them. With each case, she laid the groundwork to change the way the country treated both women and men.
During this time, the country had a new president—Jimmy Carter. When he took office, there were almost no women on the dozens of courts that made up the federal bench. President Carter was determined to change that.
Because of her experience, Ruth made it onto the list of nominees. But in her first interview, a panel of men grilled her on business law, which wasn’t her specialty.
“You’re just too inexperienced,” they told her.
Ruth left the interview frazzled.
Ruth was disheartened, but on April 14, 1980, President Carter nominated her again, this time to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Many people objected to her nomination, but in the end, only one senator voted against her. She was confirmed to the court in June.
Ruth celebrated with a bucket of fried chicken.
THE SUPREME COURT
In her 13 years on the Appeals Court, Ruth was admired by many as a fair and trustworthy judge, so when President Clinton was looking to fill an empty Supreme Court position, he invited Ruth to meet with him. She was small, but her eyes were bright, and her wit was sharp. He asked her some questions, and he knew within minutes that he would select her.
He announced her nomination on a sunny day in the White House’s Rose Garden, with Ruth standing by his side, the scent of flowers and freshly cut grass swirling around them.
When it was her turn to speak, she spoke about her mother: “I pray that I may be all that she would have been, had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons.”
Ruth continued to fight against unjust laws as a Supreme Court Justice, and, when the court ruled that women had to be allowed into the all-male Virginia Military Institute, she was able to ban gender discrimination in the United States once and for all.
THE GREAT DISSENTER
Ruth liked coming to an agreement with her fellow justices, but as time passed, she found herself disagreeing a lot.
After each case the Supreme Court hears, the justices discuss it and then vote. To win a case, those appearing before the court must convince a majority of justices to agree with them. The justices then write the court’s official decision, called the main opinion. If they’re not in agreement, those in the minority may release a dissenting opinion.
When the court refused to uphold the rights of women, people of color, or immigrants who were treated unfairly at work, Ruth dissented.
When the court failed to protect all citizens’ right to vote no matter their skin color, Ruth dissented.
Dissent could not change a court’s ruling, but Ruth hoped that her opinions would teach people about inequality. Sometimes, though, her dissenting opinion made a much bigger difference.
Ruth wrote a strongly worded dissent when the court ruled against a woman who was fighting for equal pay. Ruth’s words were so inspiring that Congress wrote a new law that ensures women will receive fair pay for their work.
ONE TRUE LOVE
At home, Ruth could ask for no better partner than Marty. He often convinced Ruth to walk away from her late nights in the office, luring her with home cooked meals. And when he was diagnosed with cancer for a second time in 2010, Marty could still be found in the kitchen, with steam and the smell of spices filling up the room, making sure Ruth got something to eat.
Then, after 56 years of marriage, Marty died.
Ruth’s heart was broken, and her best friend was gone. But it was the most important time in the Supreme Court calendar—the very last day when the big decisions were made. Her children told her she could not miss a day in court.
So, with a black ribbon in her hair, she sat in the courtroom, her face pale but her voice steady.
It was one of the hardest things she’d ever done, but she knew Marty would have wanted her on the bench.
BEYOND THE BENCH
Ruth is now the oldest justice on the Supreme Court and one of three women justices. She’s in her mid-80s, and she goes to the opera, travels, works out twice a week, and only gave up waterskiing when she reached her late 70s. Just like she did in law school, sometimes she still stays up all night to finish her work.
She’s also beaten cancer three times, and never misses a day in court if she can help it.
“In my life, what I find most satisfying is that I was a part of a movement that made life better, not just for women,” she said. “I think gender discrimination is bad for everyone….Having the opportunity to be part of that change is tremendously satisfying.”