Byron White was one of the taller justices on the U.S. Supreme Court as he neared retirement in 1993. At 6-foot-1, he was a halfback for the University of Colorado, later playing football for a predecessor of the Pittsburgh Steelers leading the league in rushing his rookie season.
White, however, was drawn to the courts. He would look for the end zone as a member of the Detroit Lions on weekends, but during the week he would study at Yale Law School, pausing only to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
He was John F. Kennedy’s deputy attorney general when the president nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1962, achieving the highest court in the land at 44.
He had just turned 76 when he stepped down from the bench, believing “someone else should be permitted to have a like experience” as he did.
That “someone else” was someone who could never fill Justice White’s shoes if she tried — at least physically.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a full foot shorter than her predecessor on the bench, but what she lacked in physical size, she made up for in her legal genius, her charisma, and a determination no one could break.
Born during the Great Depression, Ginsburg spent her early years in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. She studied hard in school, encouraged by her mother, who had to end her own education at 15 so her brother could go to college instead.
Ginsburg’s mother wanted more for her daughter — history teacher, perhaps. And definitely college, which Ginsburg found upstate at Cornell University.
Sadly, Ginsburg’s mother wouldn’t get to see her daughter off to college. She died from cancer the day before Ginsburg’s graduation.
Ginsburg earned her degree in government, but wasn’t ready to stop there. She was one of nine women at Harvard Law School in the mid-1950s, later transferring to Columbia when her husband took a job back in the city.
Even with a law degree, however, finding work was hard for Ginsburg. Not because of her skills — but because of her gender.
Instead she found herself teaching, still making less than her male colleagues. Yet, this allowed her to really focus on sex discrimination, eventually co-founding the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
The laws that angered Ginsburg the most were ones that appeared to extend rights to women, but instead promoted the arcane idea that men were still superior.
What would America look like today for women’s rights if we hadn’t had Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Not one we would be interested in exploring. It’s not that Ginsburg was the only heroine fighting, but she certainly was one who made a difference.
She was a key vote that opened military schools to women. She continuously protected reproductive rights of women at every turn. She helped establish mental illness as a disability protected by the ADA.
And Ruth Bader Ginsburg made it easier for women to sue for the same pay discrimination she faced all through her own life by pushing for what would become the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2008. Ledbetter had lost her Supreme Court case the year before against Goodyear, with the court split on a decision which made it almost impossible to sue for equal pay.
The work, sadly, is not finished. And there’s a good chance much of her legacy could be dismantled thanks to the hypocrisy of Senate Republicans.
But even faced with insurmountable odds. Standing barely above five feet. Being automatically dismissed because of her lace collar, Ruth Bader Ginsburg never stepped back. She never surrendered.
So the fight goes on — Because of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Thanks to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And in memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.