She entered Harvard Law School in 1956 as just one of a few women enrolled in a class of 500. A few years later, the woman who would one day sit on the US Supreme Court was famously rejected by dozens of New York City law firms because of her gender.
But over the decades that followed, Ruth Bader Ginsburg built a remarkable career as a legal and cultural icon who used her intelligence and courage to fight fearlessly for social justice. And after her death was announced on Friday, entire generations of lawyers — women and men alike — grieved for a jurist whose legacy somehow transcended even the highest court in the nation.
“Justice Ginsburg personified the best of what it meant to be a judge,” Harvard Law School Dean John F. Manning said in a statement. “She brought a deep intellectual and personal integrity to everything she did. Her powerful and unyielding commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice under law place her among the great Justices in the annals of the Court.”
Martha Minow, a former dean of Harvard Law School, recalled Ginsburg’s impact on her own legal career.
“I am one of countless people she directly encouraged and deeply inspired to use reason and argument in service of justice and humanity. Justice Ginsburg also showed that it is possible to build deep and meaningful friendships with people despite severe disagreements. At this time of deep social and political divisions, there is much to learn from her life and her commitments,” Minow said in a statement.
“I’m heartbroken just like everyone else who cares about justice,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. In the early 1970s, Ginsburg was instrumental in forming the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and served as the organization’s general counsel.
“Justice Ginsburg taught us hope and perseverance are political acts and that the work of social justice rests with all of us,” Rose said.
Ginsburg began her legal training at a time when few women pursued the profession. She arrived at Harvard Law School six years after the school began accepting women and the dean at the time challenged her and her female classmates to defend taking slots that could have gone to a man.
At home, Ginsburg was raising her 14-month-old daughter, Jane, and hiring babysitters to watch her while she attended class, the Globe reported in 1993.
She belonged to the Harvard Law Review, but ultimately finished her legal studies at Columbia University, graduating in 1959.
New York City law firms didn’t want to hire the new law school grad and mother.
“I struck out on three grounds — I was Jewish, a woman, and a mother. The first raised one eyebrow; the second, two; the third made me indubitably inadmissable," she told a gathering of Harvard Law School graduates in 1993. "How grand it is to see those barriers fall.”
In 2011, Harvard awarded Ginsburg an honorary degree along with opera singer Plácido Domingo, who sang to her during the presentation. Ginsburg was an opera lover, who bonded with her ideological antithesis, the late Antonin Scalia, over their shared admiration of the art.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor, wrote on Twitter that “Ruthie was my friend.”
“The t-shirts simply labeled “RBG” made her notorious. But it was her wit, her tenaciousness, and her skill as a jurist that made her an icon,” Warren wrote.
“Later, Ruthie’s groundbreaking work as a legal advocate for women led to a distinguished career as a federal judge and a Supreme Court Justice. Her lifelong dedication to fighting for justice for everyone, and her love for our nation, will be sorely missed.”
Warren said Ginsburg’s “most fervent wish” was for her successor not to be named until after the presidential inauguration in January.
“We must honor her wish,” Warren wrote.
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley also asked for Ginsburg’s request to delay the nomination of her successor to be honored.
“Throughout her life, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a tireless and unapologetic champion for women, families, and our most vulnerable communities. While she was 5′1″ in stature, she stood as a giant for justice and equality,” Pressley said in a statement. “She was deliberate in her craft, and we are all better off because of her unwavering commitment to creating a more just world.”
Nancy Gertner, a retired US district court judge and a professor at Harvard Law School, said Ginsburg had inspired generations of women and wound up a reluctant pop culture icon while approaching the law as “a craftsperson who cared about the court’s precedents and was going to work within them.”
“Ruth Ginsburg was more than just a brilliant scholar, and a liberal, which is what the press reduced her to,” Gertner said by phone. “She essentially created the law of gender and race discrimination. From the time she was a lawyer, a litigator, she was raising issues about the nuance of discrimination.”
Ginsburg “articulated the discrimination against women and minorities in a way that no one else had,” Gertner said. “Her opinions talked about systemic sexism and systemic racism and how the law and the cases have to account for embedded attitudes against women and embedded attitudes against minorities.”
Gertner recalled seeing Ginsberg speak decades ago and thinking to herself, “This is the person I want to be, to use my skills to effect social change.”
“She was as gracious a friend as you can imagine, and a real human being,” Gertner said. “I feel like I’ve lost a member of my family.”
Ginsburg’s spot in the country’s consciousness became more prominent in recent years as the subject of the 2018 documentary “RBG" and “On the Basis of Sex,” the biopic released the same year starring Felicity Jones.
Last year, Samuel Adams Boston Brewery released a limited-edition beer inspired by Ginsburg, a Belgian Brut IPA called When There Are Nine. The name was reference to her famous reply to the question about when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court.
In October 2019, Ginsburg visited Western Massachusetts for a fireside chat with Amherst College president Carolyn “Biddy” Martin before an audience of 1,600 admirers who treated the jurist like a rock star.
Ginsburg, wrapped in a scarlet shawl, reflected then on her own undergraduate years at Cornell University.
“There were some things not right about Cornell in those days. One of them was the four-to-one ratio — there were four men to every woman,” said Ginsburg, who added that “the women tended to be smarter than the men.”
“Back then too?” Martin retorted.
That was also the era of Cold War paranoia about communism. Ginsburg recalled a beloved zoology professor who was escorted out of the classroom, apparently because of his political views. She said the incident left an impression on her.
“I got the idea that being a lawyer was a pretty nifty thing to do,” she said. “I thought you could get a paying job but at the same time do something that would make things a little better in your local communities.”
Ginsburg died the same day that courthouses in Massachusetts closed to mourn the death of Ralph D. Gants, the chief justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court who died on Monday.
“It’s been a rough week,” said Rose of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “If we want to honor these great jurists and lawyers the thing to do is to carry on their work.”
Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.