Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
Birthplace: Brooklyn, N.Y.
In 1960 Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter was asked to consider hiring Ruth Bader Ginsburg as one of his law clerks. Her qualifications were first-rate: she had attended both Harvard and Columbia law schools and served on the law review of both, an achievement that generally bodes well for a distinguished legal career. She had tied for first place in her graduating class, and as an undergraduate classmate had put it, she was “scary smart.” Justice Frankfurter, however, refused to interview her, acknowledging that he was just not ready to hire a woman. Three decades later, this woman deemed unsuitable as a law clerk for the Supreme Court became one of its nine justices.
Never one to let sexist attitudes prevent her from forging ahead with her career in a traditionally male field, she plotted her course and stuck to it. A Harvard Law School dean even asked why she and the handful of other women students were taking up classroom space usually reserved for men, particularly when law firms would not hire women. Her answer was to become a clerk for a U.S. district judge and to teach law, becoming the first female tenured professor at Columbia School of Law. She then became a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, a position she held until she was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993.
Much of the impressive legal career that earned Ginsburg's appointment to the Court involved sex discrimination cases. She argued six such cases before the Supreme Court, winning five, each significantly advancing women's legal rights. Ginsburg opposed laws that treated men and women differently, even if these laws benefited women: “It is not women's liberation,” she once explained, “it is women's and men's liberation” that she was after.
Ginsburg is known for her independent thinking. Although a strong advocate of women's rights, her opinions have sometimes angered feminists; a pioneering liberal, she has not been afraid to express conservative views. Her independence and integrity continued to surface during her early tenure on the Supreme Court.