Jabots are the decorative neckwear so often seen being worn by legal representatives in films set a century or more ago.

They aren’t as popular now, but Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a whole collection from around the world, many of which she wears on specific occasions.

These accessories are striking symbols of Justice Ginsburg’s femininity, and of her fight for equality; not just in the legal system, but across the entire United States of America.

EARLY LIFE

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York, in the midst of the Great Depression. The family barely survived on a low income – her father was a furrier at a time when few could afford furs – but what they lacked in wealth they made up for in their close bonds.

Ginsburg was very close to Celia, who supported not only her youngest daughter’s pursuit of knowledge, but had gone to work at the age of 15 to support her older brother’s college education. It was a generous act, one of many for which Ginsburg revered her mother tremendously.

“My mother told me two things constantly. One was to be a lady, and the other was to be independent.”

Tragically, Celia developed cancer during Ginsburg’s high school years, and died one day before her daughter’s graduation.

DISCOVERING LAW

As Ginsburg studied at Cornell University, the USA was in the midst of some of its darkest days. The Cold War had triggered a ‘red scare’, and citizens were quick to point the finger at anyone they feared might be a communist spy. When Ginsburg became a research assistant for professor Robert Cushman, he exposed her to the contingent of lawyers who were standing up for those unfairly persecuted. Always a supporter of free thought and action, Ginsburg decided to follow in their footsteps, later saying “I became a lawyer for selfish reasons. I thought I could do a lawyer’s job better than any other.”

Upon graduating, she married fellow law student Martin Ginsburg. Their first child was born the same year that Martin was drafted into the military, leaving Ginsburg to raise the child herself for several years.

In 1956 she enrolled at Harvard Law School as one of nine women in a class of 500. Balancing her study with raising a toddler should have been tough, but Ginsburg persevered. When Martin developed testicular cancer that same year, Ginsburg attended his classes to take notes. She eventually moved to Columbia Law School, where she became the first woman to be on two major law reviews, and graduated as tied head of the class.

EARLY CAREER

The men in her family disagreed with Ginsburg pursuing a career in law, knowing that few women were ever hired in the field. That wouldn’t stop her. “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made…it shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”

Still, as expected, Ginsburg’s gender was a defining factor in her early career. She was rejected for a clerkship by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, even after receiving a strong recommendation from the dean of Harvard.

Eventually, she became a clerk for Judge L. Palmieri, followed by a three year role at Columbia Law School as a research associate and then associate director of a project on international procedure. During this time, she learnt Swedish in order to co-author a book on civil procedure.

What followed next was a procession of milestones for women in law. In 1970, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first law journal in the US to focus exclusively on women’s rights. After a stint as professor of law at Rutgers, Ginsburg moved back to Columbia, where she became the first tenured woman and co-wrote the first casebook on sexual discrimination.

WOMEN’S RIGHTS PROJECT

In 1972, Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. As chief litigator, she battled against long-standing sexist standards. Her outstanding victories in six cases over the next six years – including Reed v Reed, Weinberger v Wiesenfeld, and Frontiero v Richardson – marked significant strides forwards for women’s rights in the United States.

All these cases had positioned women as ‘less than’, and Ginsburg used her quick wit and fiery eloquence to shut down any arguments which would see women treated as anything but equals.

BECOMING A JUDGE

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Ginsburg was elated, but shocked. “People often ask me, ‘Well, did you always want to be a judge?’ My answer is it just wasn’t in the realm of the possible until Jimmy Carter became president and was determined to draw on the talent of all of the people, not just some of them.”

By the end of Carter’s term, he had appointed 40 women to the courts. Before, there had only been one.

RAISING A DISSENTING VOICE

13 years later, she was nominated for as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton. Her nomination was met with considerable criticism by those aware of her outspoken views on various subjects. When asked to hypothesise about how her views would impact on her rulings in certain situations, she refused. She did, however, affirm her belief in a constitutional right to privacy and in gender equality.

Ginsburg was appointed Associate Justice on August 10, 1993, becoming the second-ever woman to take the position.

In over two-decades in the role, she has weathered fierce opposition, all the while voicing her dissent when decisions threaten equality not just for women, but all minorities. “Dissent speaks to a future age. It’s not simply to say ‘my colleagues are wrong, and I would do it this way.” But the great dissents do become court opinions, and gradually, over time, their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”

THE FUTURE

At 82 years of age, Ginsburg is the oldest Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. She has been stricken by cancer twice (the first time, she didn’t miss a day on the bench), lost her husband, and has lead a revolutionary career that has shaped a better future for her country and, perhaps, the entire world.

 

Retirement doesn’t necessary look like an option, but Ginsburg knows the Supreme Court will be left in good hands. She is currently one of three women serving on it.

“Sometimes I’m asked ‘when will there be enough (women serving on the Supreme Court)?’ And when I say ‘when there are nine’, people are shocked. Well, there’s been nine men there for a long time, right? So why not nine women?”

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