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Saying goodbye to a leading feminist - Ruth Bader Ginsburg (22nd December 2020)

As we wrap up 2020 here at Sibéal, we reflect on the role of feminism in international events during the year. Our blog series and discussions have admired the role of feminists in social justice movements and adapting to a world experiencing a health pandemic here in Ireland and abroad. We recognise the work done by feminists gone before us who have provided us with opportunities to pursue our chosen careers and to advocate for more inclusive societies. One such feminist was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose legal career altered the legislative and policy frameworks for equality internationally. We are very pleased to welcome Fionnuala Bracken's blog about Ginsburg's career and contributions to social justice. Fionnuala is a recent graduate of the Masters of International Comparative Disability Law at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy at NUI Galway.


Ruth Badger Ginsburg was born on March 15, 1933 in New York.[1] She grew up during world war two into a Jewish family. She herself had said that her experience growing up in those circumstances sensitised her to the discrimination faced by many minority groups.[2] Ginsburg’s grandparents immigrated from Poland without any finances to receive education. Encouraged by her mother she became interested in education from a young age.[3] In an acceptance speech of her Supreme Court nomination at the Rose Garden in 1993, Ginsburg attributed her success and strength to her mother. She lamented the restrictions experienced by her mother, preventing her from reaching her full potential a generation earlier. She often wore her mother’s earrings while arguing in the Supreme Court.[4]

Badger Ginsburg studied law at Harvard. She was one of only nine women in a class of five hundred men. Her time at Harvard was made more trying by her role as carer to her husband in the wake of a cancer diagnosis, as well as her parenting role. Despite these challenges, she managed to achieve a position in the Harvard Law Review.[5] Being Jewish and woman, getting a job at a law firm was a major challenge even with her credentials.[6] She eventually got a position as law clerk and from there gained employment at a law firm.[7]


Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a renowned women’s rights activist by strategically utilising her position as a lawyer to advocate for women’s rights. She was well known for her ability to take into account extra-legal factors in her arguments.[8] She ensured the cases she chose had the potential to make significant change in the area of sex discrimination.[9] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) began referring cases to her related to sex discrimination during the 1960s. The ACLU appointed Ginsburg as a co-director of the Women’s Rights Project. Between the years of 1971 to 1980 she acted as counsel in 34 cases in the Supreme Court, many of these being landmark cases.[10]

One such case recognised that discrimination because of pregnancy is a form of sex discrimination. [11] She highlighted that pregnancy related discrimination “ is disadvantaged treatment based on their unique childbearing function”[12]. In the case of Wiesenfeld, she successfully argued the requirement for laws that make a distinction between race be placed under scrutiny and the same should be done for laws that make distinctions based on gender.[13] Ginsburg was successful in five out of six cases taken to the supreme court between the years 1972 to 1978.[14]


During 1993 Ginsburg became the first Jewish woman and second woman ever appointed to the US Supreme Court.[15] Ruth Bader Ginsburg has had a significant impact to this day. She has contributed to eliminating discrimination for women in employment, welfare, bodily autonomy and voting rights for over half a century. To this day she has an impact as she ensured women have equal pay to even owing a credit card in their own name.[16]

[1] Malvina Halberstam,(1997) ‘Ruth Bader Ginsburg : The first Jewish woman on the United States Supreme Court’ 19 Cardozo Law Review, 1443 [2] Nomination of Ruth Ginsberg to the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court to the United States: Hearing before the senate on the judiciary, 1034 Cong. 39 (1994) [3] Malvina Halberstam,(1997) ‘Ruth Bader Ginsburg : The first Jewish woman on the United States Supreme Court’ 19 Cardozo Law Review, 1443 [4] Ibid [5] Amy Leigh Campbell, (2002)‘Raising the bar: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and ACLU women’s rights project’ 11 Texas Journal of Women and the Law 161 [6] Malvina Halberstam,(1997) ‘Ruth Bader Ginsburg : The first Jewish woman on the United States Supreme Court’ 19 Cardozo Law Review,1441 [7] Ibid 1446 [8] Amy Leigh Campbell, (2002)‘Raising the bar: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and ACLU women’s rights project’ 11 Texas Journal of Women and the Law 157 [9] Malvina Halberstam,(1997) ‘Ruth Bader Ginsburg : The first Jewish woman on the United States Supreme Court’ 19 Cardozo Law Review, 1447 [10] Ibid 158 [11] Neil S. Siegel, (2010) ‘Struck by stereotype Ruth Bader Ginsburg on pregnancy discrimination as sex discrimination’ Duke Law Journal, 71 [12] Ibid [13] Malvina Halberstam,(1997) ‘Ruth Bader Ginsburg : The first Jewish woman on the United States Supreme Court’ 19 Cardozo Law Review, 1448 [14] Ibid [15] Malvina Halberstam,(1997) ‘Ruth Bader Ginsburg : The first Jewish woman on the United States Supreme Court’ 19 Cardozo Law Review,1446 [16] Sarah Franklin ‘ Ruth Bader ( 1933-2020) US Supreme Court Justice, champion of equity, environment and democracy.’ < https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02857-6>

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