Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sworn in as the second woman on the U.S. Supreme Court on August 10, 1993.
From the ACLU tribute to “the Notorious RBG” –
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice and co-founder of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU: “Women’s rights are an essential part of the overall human rights agenda, trained on the equal dignity and ability to live in freedom all people should enjoy.”
Ginsburg has been a pioneer for gender equality throughout her distinguished career. While singular in her achievements, she was far from alone in her pursuits and received much support from talented, dedicated women all along the way. Celia Bader provided a strong role model for her daughter at an early age. Ginsburg recalls, “My mother told me two things constantly. One was to be a lady, and the other was to be independent. The study of law was unusual for women of my generation. For most girls growing up in the ’40s, the most important degree was not your B.A., but your M.R.S.”
Ginsburg attended law school, not originally for women’s rights work, but “for personal, selfish reasons. I thought I could do a lawyer’s job better than any other. I have no talent in the arts, but I do write fairly well and analyze problems clearly.”
Although she arrived without a civil rights agenda, the treatment Ginsburg received as a woman in law school honed her feminist instincts. One of only nine women at Harvard Law School in 1956, Ginsburg and her female classmates were asked by the dean why they were occupying seats that would otherwise be filled by men.
. . . Ginsburg proved to be a stellar student, making law review at Harvard in 1957, and then again at Columbia Law School, where she finished her studies in order to keep the family together when her husband graduated from Harvard and accepted a job in New York. (Her daughter was born 14 months before Ginsberg entered law school.) This major accomplishment at two top schools was unprecedented by any student, male or female.
Upon graduating from Columbia in 1959, Ginsburg tied for first in her class. Still, when she was recommended for a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter by Albert Sachs, a professor at Harvard Law School, Frankfurter responded that he wasn’t ready to hire a woman and asked Sachs to recommend a man.
Ginsburg had worked for a top law firm in New York during the summer of her second year in law school. “I thought I had done a terrific job, and I expected them to offer me a job on graduation,” she recalled. Despite her performance, there was no job offer. Nor was there an offer from any of the twelve firms with which she interviewed; only two gave her a follow-up interview.
In the end, Ginsburg was hired to clerk for Judge Edmund L. Palmieri of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York from 1959 to 1961. She received offers from law firms after that job, but she chose to work on Columbia Law School’s International Procedure Project instead, co-authoring a book on Sweden’s legal system and translating Sweden’s Judicial Code into English.
Continuing in academia, Ginsburg joined the faculty of Rutgers Law School in 1963, but her status as a woman still put her at a disadvantage. When she discovered that her salary was lower than that of her male colleagues, she joined an equal pay campaign with other women teaching at the university, which resulted in substantial increases for all the complainants.
Prompted by her own experiences, Ginsburg began to handle sex discrimination complaints referred to her by the New Jersey affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. Ginsburg envisioned that men and women would “create new traditions by their actions, if artificial barriers are removed, and avenues of opportunity held open to them.” The ACLU Women’s Rights Project was born in 1972 under Ginsburg’s leadership, in order to remove these barriers and open these opportunities. That same year, Ginsburg became the first woman to be granted tenure at Columbia Law School.
The list of her struggles, accomplishments, and triumphs goes on and on.
The one battle she would ultimately lose, after a long and fierce fight, was against cancer.
I can think of no poet better suited to include in a tribute to Justice Bader Ginsburg than Alicia Ostriker.
Alicia Ostriker (1937) American poet and scholar who writes poetry from a Jewish feminist viewpoint. She was called “America’s most fiercely honest poet” by Progressive. Ostriker pursued a career as an academic and a poet while also taking care of her children, and was one of the few women authors to write frankly about her experiences of pregnancy and childbirth. In 2015, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In 2018, she was named the New York State Poet Laureate.
To read “Ghazal: America the Beautiful” by Alicia Ostriker, click:
Ghazal: America the Beautiful
by Alicia Ostriker
Do you remember our earnestness our sincerity
in first grade when we learned to sing America
The Beautiful along with the Star-Spangled Banner
and say the Pledge of Allegiance to America
We put our hands over our first grade hearts
we felt proud to be citizens of America
I said One Nation Invisible until corrected
maybe I was right about America
School days school days dear old Golden Rule Days
when we learned how to behave in America
What to wear, how to smoke, how to despise our parents
who didn’t understand us or America
Only later learning the Banner and the Beautiful
live on opposite sides of the street in America
Only later discovering the Nation is divisible
by money by power by color by gender by sex America
We comprehend it now this land is two lands
one triumphant bully one still hopeful America
Imagining amber waves of grain blowing in the wind
purple mountains and no homeless in America
Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart
somehow or other still carried away by America
“Ghazal: America the Beautiful” – © 2013 by Alicia Ostriker – first appeared in the July-August 2012 issue of The Atlantic