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Ruth Bader Ginsburg portrait
Photo Steve Petteway, via Supreme Court of the United States

The precise power of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her own words

The 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice and champion for women’s rights has died of metastatic pancreatic cancer

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second ever, and longest-serving, woman to sit on the US Supreme Court has died aged 87, having suffered complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer. A powerful advocate for women’s rights, Ginsburg was the oldest justice on the nation’s highest court, where she served for 27 years before she passed away at home in Washington, D.C. on Friday (September 18), surrounded by her family. 

However, much of Ginsburg’s legacy was shaped before entering the Supreme Court, as a lawyer fighting career-long sexism to win landmark gender discrimination cases and set new legal precedents. She also served as general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and, in 1972, co-founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.

“Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” says Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr, in a statement published by the Supreme Court following Ginsburg’s death. “We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. 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.”

Here, we remember Ginsburg’s life, legal accomplishments, and legacy through her own words.

“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time”

In part, Ginsburg’s career was defined by a slow but sustained movement towards women’s rights. “Generally change in our society is incremental,” she noted, in an explanation of this gradual approach documented in the 2015 book Notorious RBG, which covers her life and the pop culture fame she acquired in her later years. 

This incremental change included winning five of six key gender discrimination cases in the 70s, which she personally argued in front of an all-male Supreme Court. Besides affecting the lives of those directly involved, these cases were important in setting new precedents, contributing towards her arguments in the wide-reaching legal challenges – and, in many cases, victories – that were to come.

“Dissents speak to a future age”

Elected to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, Ginsburg continued to campaign for gender equality, and – becoming increasingly liberal-leaning – balanced out the court as it tipped towards a conservative majority under Donald Trump. As a more progressive voice of opposition against her conservative counterparts on civil rights issues, but also issues such as the death penalty, she gained increasing fame outside of the court for her sharp and often fiery statements of dissent.

However, as she told NPR in an interview back in 2002, the dissents were part of a broader vision. “It’s not simply to say: my colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way… The greatest dissents do become court opinions, and gradually, over time, their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenters hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”

“People ask me sometimes, when will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine”

In 2015, Ginsburg discussed her difficulties as a female student at law school in the 1950s, during an appearance at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Often discriminated against on the basis of her gender, she was one of nine women in her class at Harvard Law School (compared with 500 men) and though she graduated at the top of her class after transferring to Columbia University, she couldn’t find a law firm that was willing to hire her.

This is often credited as part of the inspiration behind her ongoing push for equal opportunities for men and women in the workplace, leading to one of her most significant early cases, United States v Virginia, which called for the Virginia Military Institute to abolish its male-only admissions policy.

Having ascended to the Supreme Court decades later, when speaking at Georgetown University, she recalled people asking her when she thought there would be enough women in a similar position on the nation’s highest court. Though her answer may have been slightly tongue-in-cheek – referencing the many years that the court was all male – she didn’t have to pause to think about her reply: that there will be enough when all nine positions are filled by women.

“My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed”

Having already faced four cancer treatments since 1999, Ginsburg dictated her wish to keep her place on the Supreme Court – or delay the decision for her replacement – to her granddaughter just days before she passed away, as reported by NPR. Because a Supreme Court position lasts until the holder dies, resigns, or retires, Ginsburg feared that her death would open up a vacancy that could be filled by a sixth conservative judge.

While Democrats have claimed that the decision for Ginsburg’s replacement should be made after the US presidential election in November, the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has pledged to push through a vote on Donald Trump’s nominee beforehand. If the Republican-controlled Senate approves the appointment, it’s likely to tip the balance even further in the favour of conservative justices (of which there would be six, to three liberal justices).

In a tribute to Ginsburg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez writes: “It is heartbreaking that in her final moments she was, as are many others, preoccupied with what would happen after her passing.”

I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks”

Having achieved a kind of pop culture fame as a feminist icon – aka, the Notorious RBG – in her later life, Ginsburg was portrayed by Felicity Jones, who calls her “a public figure who stood for integrity and justice” in a recent statement, in the 2018 film On the Basis of Sex. However, it’s in RBG, the Academy Award-nominated documentary from the same year, that she quotes the American abolitionist and pioneer of the women’s suffrage movement Sarah Grimké, to summarise the equality that she’s been striving for throughout her life and career.

She is survived by two children, her daughter Jane Carol Ginsburg, who is also a law professor, and her son James, as well as several grandchildren. But of course, her legacy also extends to many younger women studying and practising law in the US, as well as both men and women that have benefited from her profound influence on gender equality.