Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at 87 after serving as a Supreme Court Justice for 27 years. Here's a look at the trailblazer's life and career.

rpremack@businessinsider.com (Rachel Premack,Lauren Frias)
·8 min read
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The Notorious RBG.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020 due to complications from cancer. She was 87.

The Supreme Court confirmed her death in a statement on Friday. Chief Justice John Roberts described Ginsburg as a "jurist of historic nature" and he and his colleagues at the Supreme Court "have lost a cherished colleague."

"Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her — a tireless and resolute champion of justice," Roberts continued in the statement.

She spent decades as a trailblazer in gender equality law before she became an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court — and a pop culture icon.

She was on the nation's highest court for more than 27 years, ever since she took her oath on August 10, 1993.

Here's how the daughter of an immigrant in the fur business became one of the most important legal influences of her time. 

Joan Ruth Bader was born in 1933 in Brooklyn. She became known by her middle name because there were too many "Joans" in her elementary school.

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Source: Achievement, "My Own Words"

Ruth's father, who was born in Russia and never attended high school, worked in fur. Her mother, Celia, was highly intellectual but wasn't able to attend college or pursue her own career.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in 1977

Source: Achievement

Celia took Ruth to the library every week and encouraged a love of education in her daughter. But, after struggling with cancer for years, Celia died before Ruth graduated from high school.

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Source: Achievement

She attended Cornell University and graduated in 1954 at the top of her class.

cornell university

Source: Oyez

A month later, she married her classmate Martin Ginsburg, who she had met on a blind date her freshman year. She put her career on hold for several years as she gave birth to her first child, Jane.

Martin Ginsburg in 1993.
Martin Ginsburg in 1993.

Source: Oyez

In 1956, two years after graduating college, Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School, where Martin was also a student. She was one of just nine women in the class of more than 500.

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Source: Achievement

The law dean reportedly invited the nine female students in the class to dinner and asked, "How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?" Ginsburg said she gave "the answer he expected": "My husband is a second-year law student, and it's important for a woman to understand her husband's work."

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Source: The New York Times

Meanwhile, Ginsburg had won a seat on the Harvard Law Review. She was also caring for her young baby and for Martin as he was suffering from testicular cancer — even attending his classes and writing his papers.

harvard ginsburg

Source: Achievement

Martin eventually recovered and joined a law firm in New York City. Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School, earning a seat on their law review and graduating tied for first in the class in 1959.

Ginsburg 1996

Source: Achievement

Despite that stellar academic record, Ginsburg had issues finding a job. Many law firms had signs for applicants that read, "Men Only." Her Jewish background also didn't help.

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Source: The New York Times

So, Ginsburg didn't go through law firms. She accepted a courtship with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and, after two years, began working at Columbia Law's Project on International Procedure.

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Source: Achievement

Ginsburg quickly became an associate director of the Project on International Procedure. One of her early projects was studying the Swedish legal system; she also taught herself Swedish.

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Source: Achievement

Ginsburg later said the private sector's rejection was ultimately beneficial. Otherwise, she wouldn't have gotten this unique opportunities in academia and the government.

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The Notorious RBG.

Source: The New York Times

She became a law professor at Rutgers University in 1963, where she continued to study Swedish law. Through her studies of Sweden, she became more interested in gender equality issues.

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Source: Achievement

Ginsburg founded The Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first American law journal on gender equality issues, in 1970. She then wrote the first textbook on sex discrimination law in 1974.

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Source: Achievement

At that time, gender issues were seen as unimportant, and studying them could hamper a woman's career. "The concern was that if a woman was doing gender equality, her chances of making it to tenure in the law school were diminished," Ginsburg told The New York Times in 2015. "It was considered frivolous."

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Source: The New York Times

But the focus certainly didn't hamper her career. Ginsburg joined the faculty at Columbia University Law School in 1972.

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Source: Achievement

And, through her know-how in gender equality law, she founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and began arguing cases on discrimination before the US Supreme Court.

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Source: AchievementOyez

One landmark case Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court involved a county in Missouri that allowed women to opt out of jury duty on request. That meant women comprised less than 15% of jurors in that county. Ginsburg argued that this violated the Sixth Amendment, and also implied that this meant that women jurors were less valuable than male opinions. Her arguments led a vote in her favor by 8-1.

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Source: Justia

In 1980, Ginsburg was appointed to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where she served for 13 years. Her husband Martin followed her to DC, becoming a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

Ginsburg 1993

Source: Achievement

In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. She was the second woman to serve and the first Jewish woman.

Ginsburg in 1993.

Source: Achievement

Ginsburg was originally selected for being a moderate and a consensus builder, but she's now one of most left-leaning justices on the Court.

Ginsburg 2007

Source: FiveThirtyEight, LA Times

Some of Ginsburg's landmark opinions as a justice included her opinion written on the insider trading case of United States v. O'Hagan and male-only admissions at the Virginia Military Institute.

Ginsburg 2009

Source: Justia, Justia

As an Associate Justice, Ginsburg's two children grew and found their own paths in adulthood. Her older child, Jane, is a law professor at Columbia and her younger one, James, owns a record label in Chicago.

ginsburg and family 1993

Source: Achievement

Her husband Marty, who Ginsburg called her "biggest booster" and "an extraordinary man," passed away in 2010.

ginsburg and husband

Source: The New York Times

By 2014, at which point she was in her early 80s, Ginsburg had become a pop culture icon — taking on the nickname Notorious R.B.G.

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A young child dressed up as R.B.G.

"(P)eople really find her politics powerful," said the creator of the Notorious RGB blog. "She's standing up to the conservative majority, who also happen to be men. She is an image of feminist rebellion, while still being a demure, quiet person in real life."

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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 85, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC in March.

Source: Business Insider

Ginsburg's policies aren't the only thing her devotees admire her for — they even try to follow her workouts, which are one-hour long and involve push-ups, planks, and squats.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Source: Business Insider

Ginsburg beat colon cancer in 1999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009, barely missing any days on the bench.

2013 ginsburg

Source: Achievement

At 85, people are predicting when Ginsburg will retire. But she's indicated that they shouldn't wait around for her to leave any time soon: "As long as I can do the job full steam, I will be here."

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Source: Washington Examiner

Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020 due to complications from metastatic pancreas cancer. She was 87.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in October 2019.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in October 2019.

Ginsburg had several types of cancer over the last 20 years. She had been hospitalized several times in the past year, and was undergoing treatment for metastatic pancreas cancer.

She was public about her medical condition, though Supreme Court justices are not required to share details about their health.

Ginsburg's death gives President Donald Trump a third opportunity to nominate a lifetime appointee to the nation's highest court, securing a conservative majority for decades to come.

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