Hers was a life of quiet determination, striving personally and professionally
against outlandish instances of sexual discrimination and later helping to lead
the Supreme Court to important decisions addressing gender discrimination.
Back before there was a global pandemic, there was a time when major figures in American and international life regularly visited Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois. Such was the case in 1994 with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then barely a year into her tenure on the high court and still healthy and vivacious.
She spent a whirlwind day on the campus, helping to rededicate the UI Law School building, receiving an honorary degree from the university, chatting socially with students, faculty and alumni and finally spending time at a private dinner with faculty and alums.
The honorary degree praised Ginsburg as a “thinker and doer” whose “careful, strategic development of sex-based discrimination cases overturned laws and changed lives.”
Indeed, Ginsburg’s pre-Supreme Court career was filled with history-making law. As a leader of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, she successfully argued six landmark cases before the high court. It’s why she was known as the Thurgood Marshall of women’s rights, a reference to the first Black Supreme Court justice who made plenty of history before that appointment.
Ginsburg’s professional successes came after personal triumphs in the face of outrageous discrimination, such as the criticisms at Harvard Law School that she was taking the place of a man or the job offers at prestigious law firms that came with lower salaries than her male colleagues received. She persisted.
And in August 1993, she became only the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court and almost immediately led it to groundbreaking decisions knocking down gender-based discrimination. She was, as U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth said, “a 5-foot, 1-inch giant who gave a voice to girls and women everywhere and moved the needle forward in our long fight toward justice and equality for all.”
But there was only so much the law could do to eliminate gender discrimination, Ginsburg said during her stop at Illinois 26 years ago this month. In her perfect world, men and women would take equal responsibility for raising children.
“As I’ve often said, if I had any affirmative-action plan, it would be to give men every incentive to share in the job of bringing up children,” Ginsburg said. “It would be the best thing for society, and it’s healthy for children.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a woman of great wisdom and
vision but also of great heart. Her life was a gift to her country.