Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be remembered as a champion of equality. Well before she ascended to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg had left an indelible mark on law and society. At the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, she was the chief architect of a campaign against sex-role stereotyping in the law, arguing and winning five landmark Supreme Court cases during the 1970s. These decisions established the principle of equal treatment in the law for women as well as men and banished numerous laws that treated men and women differently based on archaic gender stereotypes. Her achievements as a litigator made her, as many have said, the Thurgood Marshall of the women’s rights movement. As an associate justice on the court, Ginsburg wrote opinions that championed both gender and racial equality. Most notably, in United States v. Virginia—the culmination of her campaign for equal treatment in the law—her majority opinion held unconstitutional the Virginia Military Institute’s practice of excluding qualified women from admission merely because of sex. Her oral dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, which rejected a pay discrimination case on a technicality, pushed Congress to enact and President Barack Obama to sign equal pay legislation in 2009. She defended women’s reproductive freedom in several cases and supported gay marriage. Through her stinging dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, she captured the imagination of a new generation. Her new admirers, praising her fierceness, deemed her the “notorious RBG.” In other cases, Ginsburg defended affirmative action against a legal onslaught, and she poignantly noted in interviews that she and many other women had benefited from the practice.
Her legacy, however, goes far beyond what she achieved in court. Ginsburg also should be remembered for her resilience. Personal setbacks animated her quest for social justice. She memorably summed up the connection between her personal losses and her public life at a Federal Judicial Center conference that I attended years ago. Profound challenges—the loss of her mother the day before she graduated from high school, her husband’s struggle with cancer while they were both in law school—fueled her fierce determination to accomplish her dreams and achieve justice for others. “I wasn’t going to just sit in the corner and cry,” I recall Ginsburg defiantly noting during her talk. Those words have stuck with me all these years. Ginsburg’s refusal to crumble into a heap of defeat is a defining and inspiring part of her legacy.
Tomiko Brown-Nagin is the dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School.