Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I felt I had to write at least a short blog this weekend to express my great sadness at the news of the death of one of my personal heroines, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, US Supreme Court Justice and legendary campaigner for equal rights for women.

One of my most frequent messages to the girls here at school is how important it is not to take for granted the many opportunities that are open to women today, compared even with the experience of very recent generations. Although she may not be a household name in the UK, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was instrumental in creating the conditions in the US that led to many of those opportunities being available across the western world.

She had herself experienced the systematic, institutional sexism that she fought against. The story is told of how, when studying at Harvard Law School in 1957 as one of just nine female undergraduates in a year group of 500 men, the women were asked by the dean to explain one by one, why they had enrolled at the university and taken a place from a man. Ginsburg knew how to play the game and explained that she was getting a degree to be a more empathetic wife to her husband Marty, who was a second-year student at Harvard Law at the time. We can now see that the real answer was ‘to stop other women being faced with this kind of indignity’.

Her appointment as a Supreme Court Justice was also an indirect result of the same kind of sexism. Although she had outstanding grades, the top New York law firms of the day turned her down, leading her to pursue the different, more public-service orientated path that led ultimately to the highest court in America.

One of things that struck me, seeing her in action in documentaries and reading about her, was how her work was rarely glamorous. She tackled endemic and unquestioned sexism by grinding through the detail of cases and legislation and, often, the application of a wily sense of logic: in one case, she won the decision not by arguing for women to have equal freedom to men, but equal obligations; in another she managed to get a discriminatory practice deemed illegal largely by finding a rare case in which the victim of the discrimination was a man. It was the approach not only of a great intellect but of a great lawyer too – something that should be a real inspiration to those going into the study of the law today.

Without getting into the politics of who will succeed ‘RBG’ on the Supreme Court, and when, it is a tribute to her influence and achievements that this issue itself is an issue of international significance – especially given the direct effect that events in the US can now have across the world. She will be much missed.