August 09, 2021
And that's the tee... on RBG's inspiring life & legacy
Happy Monday, Feministas! It's time for another installment of And That's the Tee, where we give you the lowdown on the inspo behind some of our favorite graphic tees. If you've been with us for a minute, you may have noticed that we've got more than one design featuring the Notorious RBG--honoring her life, highlighting her famous dissents, and recalling her iconic quote, "when there are nine"--and today we're going to give you a little context for that obsession.
We'll cover her journey from a young girl in Brooklyn to a student at Harvard and Columbia Law School, and then trace her steps from successful lawyer fighting for gender equality to the second woman ever appointed as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Aside from all of her accomplishments though, what becomes clear as you learn her story is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was never daunted by the absence of women in any of the spaces she occupied.
It's her fearlessness, perseverance, and pointed focus on gender equality throughout her career that made her the feminist icon we all know and love, and we hope you feel as empowered as we do by her life and legacy.
Girl power from the get-go
Before she was the three-letter icon, Joan Ruth Bader was born to parents Celia and Nathan Bader in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. (She started going by "Ruth" to when she started school and discovered that several other girls in her class had the name "Joan.")
Ruth excelled in school and credits her mother for instilling a love of learning in her from an early age, taking her on frequent trips to the library and encouraging her every step of the way. It only makes sense that our feminist (s)hero would come from a strong female role model, a woman who struggled with cancer throughout Ruth's childhood and still worked to make ends meet for her family until her death in 1950.
Ever ahead of the curve, Ruth graduated at just fifteen and went on to college as her mother hoped she would.
"Taking the place of a man"
Ruth began her higher education at Cornell University, where she was, of course, the highest-ranking female student in her graduating class. She also happened to meet her future husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, whom she married just a month after her graduation.
For the first two years of their marriage, Ruth's education was put on hold as Martin was drafted into the military and she--at just 21 years old--became pregnant with their first child, Jane. But as soon as he was discharged, the couple moved right back into academia with their young daughter in tow.
Together, they attended Harvard Law School, where our feminist heroine was one of just nine women in a class of 500. Famously, the dean at the time took all of the female students to dinner one night and asked them in earnest what they thought they were doing in the program, "taking the place of a man." Ginsburg was undaunted though, and went on to excel in her classes and become a member of the legal journal, the Harvard Law Review.
When that same dean denied her request to continue her education and earn her degree at Harvard, she simply transferred to Columbia, where she made law review again--a feat that no one, male or female, had ever done by the way--and graduated in 1959, tied for first in her class. By simply existing in these spaces and excelling there, she was already breaking boundaries for working women in the U.S. and around the world.
Fighting for her seat at the table
Despite her exceptional academic record, Ginsburg found it nearly impossible to find a job after graduation. No one wanted to hire a female lawyer in 1960, and she was rejected countless times due to her gender. Eventually, thanks to a heavy-handed recommendation from a former professor--it was basically a threat--she was hired as a law clerk for Judge Edmund L. Palmieri at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, where she worked for two years.
In the years that followed, she returned to academia, first working with Columbia Law's International Procedure Project, for which she learned Swedish and then translated Sweden's Judicial Code into English (sure, no big deal), and then teaching at Rutgers Law School and eventually Columbia, where she would become the first woman ever to receive tenure.
At Rutgers, she learned early on that her salary was lower than that of her male colleagues, so she joined an equal pay campaign with other women at the university and they many of them earned pay increases as a result. Girl power, baby.
Making waves for equal pay
Ginsburg's experiences with gender discrimination in the education system and in the workforce were plentiful, to say the least, and this prompted her to focus her professional attention on solving the issue in a bigger way. And so, she spent most of the '70s first co-founding and then working as the director of the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). It was during her time there that she argued six of the most important cases on women's rights in history before the U.S Supreme Court.
These cases covered everything from gendered drinking ages and jury duty requirements to involuntary sterilization and discriminatory pay--anything that treated men and women differently under the law. And although she claims to have been very nervous before her arguments, her colleagues always praised her for her preparedness and oratory skills. She has said of her first case, "two minutes into my argument, the fear dissolved. Suddenly, I realized that here before me were the nine leading jurists of America, a captive audience. I felt a surge of power that carried me through." And, as we all know, the rest is herstory :)
In 1980, RBG was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and in 1993, Bill Clinton named her U.S. Supreme Court Justice. She was the second woman (after Justice Sandra Day O'Connor) and the first Jewish woman to serve, and she became known for her level-headedness, her willingness to work across the aisle and, of course, her well-considered and powerful dissents in defense of gender equality and civil rights.
Leaving behind a feminist legacy
Ginsburg was often asked ‘"when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court]?" And reporters were always shocked when she'd say, "when there are nine." But, she explained, "there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that." RBG often delivered that kind of shouldn't-this-be-obvious, don't-you-know-better-by-now truth bomb with a straight face, and earned a reputation for being straight-forward and fair in both her advocacy and her interpretation of the law.
In some cases, that meant she surprised the public with unpopular rulings not always in line with her party, but it was this kind of unwavering commitment to what she saw as genuinely just that made her early most significant feminist arguments--on things like equal pay, voting rights, and reproductive choice--impossible to strike down or ignore.
She died of pancreatic cancer on September 18, 2020, but will always be remembered as a feminist hero and a shining example of how hard work, bravery, and advocacy in the name of equality can truly change the world.
Okay, deep breath, y'all. That was one of our longer ones, but RBG is a real one, and we didn't want to leave out any of the juicy details. We thank you for reading as always, Feministas. See you next week, and don't forget to scroll down and sign up for the newsletter if you don't want to miss a beat.