Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Dies At 87 Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, died from complications from cancer. Her death will set in motion what promises to be a tumultuous political battle over who will succeed her.
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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Champion Of Gender Equality, Dies At 87

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Champion Of Gender Equality, Dies At 87

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Champion Of Gender Equality, Dies At 87

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died, a scholar and lawyer who became an icon. She designed and led the fight for women's rights in the 1970s and subsequently served 27 years on the U.S. Supreme Court. She died last night at the age of 87 of complications from metastatic cancer of the pancreas. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, who knew and covered Justice Ginsburg for more than 40 years, has this report on her life and legacy.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Ruth Bader Ginsburg quite simply changed the way the world is for American women, and she did it before she became a Supreme Court justice. For more than a decade, until her first judicial appointment in 1980, she led the fight in the courts for gender equality. When she began her legal crusade, women were treated by law differently from men. Hundreds of state and federal laws restricted what women could do, barring them from jobs, rights, even from jury service. By the time she dawned judicial robes, however, Ginsburg had wrought a revolution. That was never more evident than in 1996 when, as a relatively new Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg wrote the court's 7-1 opinion declaring that the Virginia Military Institute could no longer exclude women. True, she said, most women - indeed, most men - could not meet VMI's rigorous demands, but...

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RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Reliance on overbroad generalizations, typically male or typically female tendencies, estimates about the way most women or most men are will not suffice to deny opportunity to women whose talents and capacity place them outside the average description.

TOTENBERG: She was an unlikely pioneer, diminutive and shy. But in her later years, she became something of a rock star to women of all ages. She was the subject of two movies, an operetta, a Time magazine cover. Merchandise of every kind bore her tiny face with huge glasses. And she was the subject of regular "Saturday Night Live" sketches.

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COLIN JOST: (As self) Here to comment is liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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TOTENBERG: Ginsburg enjoyed her fame but maintained a sense of humor about herself. When TV cameras showed her falling asleep during the 2015 State of the Union speech, she admitted during an onstage interview that she had imbibed a bit too much wine at dinner with the justices beforehand.

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GINSBURG: So I got a call when I came home from one of my granddaughters, and she said, Bubbie, you were sleeping at the State of the Union.

(LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ruth Bader went to public schools, excelled as a student and a baton twirler. Her mother, the driving force in her young life, died the day before the future justice was to graduate as valedictorian from her high school. Then 17, she went to Cornell on full scholarship. There she met Martin, a.k.a. Marty Ginsburg.

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GINSBURG: What made Marty so just overwhelmingly attractive to me is that he cared that I had a brain.

TOTENBERG: The duo were married. He was drafted, and they went to Fort Sill, Okla., where she scored high on the civil service exam but could only get a job as a typist. Two years later, they returned to the East Coast and Harvard Law School. The Ginsburgs were busy juggling schedules and their toddler when Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Surgery and aggressive radiation followed. That left Ruth alone to take care of their 2-year-old daughter and her very sick husband, including typing his senior thesis as he dictated it late at night.

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GINSBURG: And then he'd go back to sleep, and it was about two o'clock. Then I'd take out the books and start reading what I needed to read to be prepared for classes the next day.

TOTENBERG: She graduated at the top of her class but couldn't find a job. Law firms were loath to hire a woman, much less a mother. She finally got a teaching job at Rutgers Law School, hid her second pregnancy so she wouldn't lose her job and began her fight for women's rights. Ginsburg's first Supreme Court victory came in a 1971 case testing whether state laws may automatically prefer men over women as executors of estates. The answer was no. It was the first time the Supreme Court had ever struck down a state law because it discriminated based on gender.

As the chief architect of the legal battle for women's rights, Ginsburg devised a strategy that was characteristically cautious, precise and single-mindedly aimed at one goal, winning. To that end, she often picked male plaintiffs to illustrate the inequality of the law for male judges. For instance, in one of the cases she argued before the Supreme Court, she represented a man whose wife, the principal breadwinner for the family, died in childbirth. Under the then existing law, a widow was entitled to Social Security payments for child care but not a widower.

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GINSBURG: This absolute exclusion based on gender per se operates to the disadvantage of female workers, their surviving spouses and their children.

TOTENBERG: In an interview with NPR, she explained the legal theory that she sold to the Supreme Court, winning victories in five landmark cases.

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GINSBURG: The words of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause - nor shall any state deny to any person the equal protection of the laws. Well, that word, any person, covers women as well as men. And the Supreme Court woke up to that reality in 1971.

TOTENBERG: After the 2006 retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, as the court grew more and more conservative, Ginsburg dissented more often and more assertively. For instance, when the court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that for decades had prevented discriminatory voting practices, Ginsburg skewered the majority's claim that the law was no longer needed. That, she said, is like throwing away an umbrella in the middle of a rainstorm because you aren't getting wet.

Despite her frequent dissents, Ginsburg from time to time was able to pull out victories in closely contested cases. In 2015, for instance, in an Arizona case, she authored the court's decision upholding independent redistricting commissions set up by voter referenda as a way of removing some of the partisanship in drawing legislative district lines.

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GINSBURG: Arizona voters sought to restore the core principle that voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.

TOTENBERG: Despite her soft voice and tiny stature, Ginsburg's inner core was, as one of her colleagues put it, tough as nails. Over a period of 20 years, she five times battled cancer, succumbing only this year. Over that time, she endured radiation, chemotherapy and, in her later years, even a bout of shingles with pain that never went away. Until 2019, after her surgery for lung cancer, she never missed a day in court. And in 2020, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in May by telephone, she participated from her hospital bed.

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GINSBURG: I do think that I was born under a very bright star because if you think of my life, I get out of law school. I have top grades. No law firm in the city of New York will hire me. I end up teaching, and that gave me time to devote to the movement for evening out the rights of women and men.

TOTENBERG: For 60 of her years on this earth, Ginsburg's biggest booster, best pal and heartthrob was her husband Marty, who promoted her at every turn, teased her incessantly and prodded her back to work after cancer bouts. In 2010, though, it was Marty who was mortally ill. And as the Justice packed up his things in the hospital to take him home to die, she found a handwritten note he'd drafted.

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GINSBURG: My dearest Ruth, I have admired and loved you almost since the day we first met at Cornell. The time has come for me to toughen up or to take leave of life because the loss of quality now simply overwhelms. I hope you will support where I come out, but I understand you may not. I will not love you a jot less.

TOTENBERG: Despite her loss, the day after her husband's death, Justice Ginsburg was on the Supreme Court bench announcing a major opinion for the court. She was there, she said, because Marty would have wanted it that way. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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