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Remembering a Hero: The Moments That Made Ruth Bader Ginsburg an Icon

Late Friday evening, the Supreme Court of the United States confirmed that, at 87, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in her home in Washington, D.C., from complications from her metastatic pancreas cancer.

Appointed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, Ginsburg (a Brooklyn-native and Cornell, Harvard and Columbia alum) was the second woman to ever serve on the court. In her more than 27 years of service on the SCOTUS (and more than 40 years as a judge) Ginsburg heard and ruled on cases ranging from gender equality issues in schools, high-stakes presidential elections, marriage equality and, of course, landmark reproductive rights cases. Working up until some her very last days, she’s been a meme, she’s been a role model for countless women pursuing public service (someone you can point out to your daughter and say, yes, that can be you) and she’s been a warrior for women’s rights to own their bodies (and the many, many freedoms that come from being able to do that). And now, we can mourn her knowing she’s left this world a better place than she found it by “[using] whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability.”

“Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature. We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. said in a statement. “Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her — a tireless and resolute champion of justice.” 

To honor her legacy — before we all get to work — here’s a look at some of the most powerful, inspiring and impactful parts of her life and work. (She didn’t get the Notorious RBG rep for nothing!)  

Before the court — still a boss

Before she was an associate justice, Ginsburg was already grinding for women’s equality. In 1971, she was a key player in launching the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (serving as the ACLU’s General Counsel from 1973 to 1980 and helping prioritize women’s rights conversations and actions at the org). During this time, she was a law professor at Rutgers University and was instrumental in winning the SCOTUS decision and the ACLU’s pick for director, played a major role in winning important SCOTUS decisions for sexual discrimination.

“I wanted to be part of a general human rights agenda,” she said at the time, per a 2020 essay from her co-director Brenda Feigen. “Civil liberties are an essential part of the overall human rights concern — the equality of all people and the ability to be free.”

Opening doors

In 1996, when the SCOTUS heard the case of Virginia Military Institute (VMI) (an exclusively male pubic undergraduate institution) and allegations that their policy of only admitting men was unconstitutional (violating the Fourteenth amendment), Ginsburg penned the majority opinion ruling that it was. And there are some quotes from that United States v. Virginia opinion that pretty much say it all: “generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.”

Helping love win 

A more recent, but immensely impactful moment for LGBT individuals is the part Ginsburg played in the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges. Another Fourteenth amendment doozy, this case tackled whether, under that amendment, states are required to license marriages between same-sex individuals and recognize same sex marriages licensed out-of-state.

Her words on this front to bad-faith arguments about “traditional marriage” are still biting and sharp and powerful about how marriage has evolved: “Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female. That ended as a result of this court’s decision in 1982 when Louisiana’s Head and Master Rule was struck down … Would that be a choice that state should [still] be allowed to have? To cling to marriage the way it once was?”

She went on to say “All of the incentives, all of the benefits that marriage affords would still be available. So you’re not taking away anything from heterosexual couples. They would have the very same incentive to marry, all the benefits that come with marriage that they do now.”

While marriage doesn’t go anywhere near solving complicated intersecting issues affecting the LGBT community on a social, economic and cultural level, this was a powerful moment in recent history for recognizing that a union between same-sex couples is just as valid and worthy under the law as a heterosexual one. 

Freeing women from TRAPs

We’ve written at-length about Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws — pervasive anti-choice legislation on the state-level that works to make it harder to run an affordable and accessible abortion clinic through regulations on the size of the clinic’s hallways (no, really) to comply with ambulatory surgical center requirements (which, as experts say, is a medically unnecessary and financially burdensome ask for providers of these exceedingly safe procedures).

The case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, asked in 2016 if these laws represented a “substantial burden” to people seeking abortion services (legal healthcare they are entitled to) and, as Oyez notes, “take into account the extent to which laws that restrict access to abortion services actually serve the government’s stated interest in promoting health.” 

Regarding the decision, Ginsburg emphasized the safety of modern abortions and the burden that these laws put on people seeking healthcare they are legally allowed to seek under Roe v. Wade: “It is beyond rational belief that H. B. 2 could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law ‘would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions. Laws like H. B. 2 that ‘do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion,’ … cannot survive judicial inspection.”

Setting a powerful example for other leaders

The impact of Ginsburg’s life and career — particularly in how she’s inspired others in their political careers — is something that will be felt by lawmakers and advocates for decades to come.

Former Executive Director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice and current Democratic/Working Families Party nominee for New York State Assembly, District 34 Jessica González-Rojas said in a statement to SheKnows: “Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a pillar of justice and liberation for women. She truly exemplified what it meant to be bold, audacious and uncompromising in her vision for true gender equity in this country. RBG was the co-founder of the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and continued the fight as a Supreme Court Justice. She has presided over some of the most important cases that shaped reproductive freedom in the U.S. and has been unwavering in determination to achieve full equity in the eyes of the law and in society. I deeply mourn the loss of this SHEro and we, as a country, must resist any attempts to undue the decades of progress she has fought so hard to obtain. We must continue to demand a Supreme Court appointee who will uphold dignity and justice for all people.”

Putting this thought into the world 

Even if you aren’t a legal wonk and court case documents don’t rev your engines, you gotta admit RBG had a gift for dropping one-liners and inspiring quotes. One that stands out, looking to future, is one Ginsburg said when asked about gender parity and equality on the Supreme Court. How many women will be enough? Nine. 

“When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say ‘when there are nine,’ people are shocked,” she said. “But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

And this one’s personal: she wrote us back! 

Okay, this one is more of a personal proof of icon status, but in 2016 SheKnows created a super awesome coloring book of Ginsburg — and she sent us a thank you letter! And we’re still thinking about it. 

So, thank you Justice Ginsburg. For your work, your legacy, and the inspiration to tackle whatever comes next. 

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