Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54, the second ever woman to serve on the Supreme Court, one of the most notable Cornell alumnae and fixture in the fight for equal rights, died Friday in her Washington home of complications with metastatic pancreatic cancer. She was 87.
In her 27 years on the bench, Ginsburg transformed American society through the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, expanding women’s rights and later LGBTQ+ rights. A quiet and brilliant jurist, Ginsburg was devoted to the law, always doing justice to the views on the other side of the issue while articulating her argument — especially in her pointed dissenting opinions.
Before her tenure as a justice, Ginsburg was a passionate advocate as a Cornell undergraduate, a law school professor and later the architect of the legal fight for women’s rights in the 1970s. She is remembered as a pop culture heroine, someone who stood up against injustice and a raging patriarchy.
An advocate from the start: Ginsburg’s time on the Hill
“In her unwavering pursuit of equity, driven by a vision in which any person is able to deploy their talents, putting them to use to help repair the world, I see Justice Ginsburg as the embodiment of our Cornell ideals,” President Martha E. Pollack wrote on Sunday. “Most obvious is her commitment to our ‘any person’ ethos.”
Then Ruth Bader went to Cornell on a full scholarship, where she majored in government in the College of Arts and Sciences. While at Cornell, Ginsburg was a passionate advocate and active leader for women.
In her first year at Cornell, Ginsburg joined the Women’s Self Government Association, and after losing the vice presidency, she found her calling as the chair of the Women’s Vocational Information Committee. The committee focused on supporting career development for women, and Ginsburg surveyed 1,500 of her peers to gauge the most common career interests. Finding that teaching and social work were the most popular, Ginsburg promptly brought a Cornell Law alumna to speak with the students about legal careers for women.
She was “fearless” in standing up for what was right from the start, her friends recounted.
In a 2018 interview, Ginsburg remembered the dominant “boys will be boys” attitude toward sexual harassment while at Cornell. A chemistry instructor once gave her a practice exam that was the same as the actual exam; she knew “exactly what he wanted in return.”
But she did not let this incident go: Ginsburg said she deliberately made two mistakes on the exam and went to confront the professor.
“I went to his office and I said, ‘How dare you? How dare you do this?’” she said in the interview. “And that was the end of that.”
Later in her career, the champion of gender equality declared her support for the #MeToo movement, recounting this experience, and said it was “about time” for women to be able to stand up against sexual harassment.
“For so long, women were silent, thinking there was nothing you could do about it,” she said in 2018. “But now the law is on the side of women, or men, who encounter harassment, and that’s a good thing.” Ginsburg was instrumental in changing the law, filing lawsuits against her university employers for pay discrimination and discrimination on the basis of sex.
An active alumna, she returned to Cornell for lectures and special events periodically over the course of six decades. In 2003, she spoke at Jeffrey S. Lehman’s inauguration as the University’s 11th president.
She ended that speech by quoting an 1867 letter from Ezra Cornell to his granddaughter Eunice: “I want to have girls educated in the University, as well as boys so that they have the same opportunity to become wise and useful to society that the boys have.”
“I didn’t know of that letter when I attended Cornell,” Ginsburg said. “I would have treasured it then; I treasure it now.”
‘The Notorious R.B.G.’: A legal, cultural and feminist icon at Cornell
As news spread of Ginsburg’s death Friday night, a shrine of memorabilia emerged outside a Collegetown apartment. And the next afternoon, a crowd of masked students gathered on the Arts Quad for a vigil.
“We can’t help but look to someone like R.B.G. and say, ‘This is an icon. This is a role model,’” Cosimo Fabrizio ’22 said. “She is someone I aspire to be, if not in a career path, in her commitment to making this country a more equitable, just society.”
The octogenarian became a kind of rock star, known for her powerful dissenting opinions and transformative influence. Two movies came out about the justice in 2018, young girls dressed in R.B.G. costumes for Halloween and the image of a severe Ginsburg with oversized glasses and her frilly lace “dissenting” collar appeared as stickers, t-shirts and even tattoos.
But on Friday night, the image adorned the porch of Dylan Brenner’s ’21 house — a shrine to the late justice. Flowers, candles and even liquor joined Brenner’s memorabilia over the weekend as other mourners added to the makeshift display.
“I love her so much, and I always have,” Brenner said. “I want to go into politics and I want to go to law school, and she’s just paved the way for so many young women.”
The “larger than life” justice touched the lives and careers of so many Cornellians, inspired by her fervent activism, radical change and knowing she walked the same hallways.
“Being in the presence of someone so inspirational … has been largely influential in my political life,” said Steve José Poveda ’13, who met Ginsburg while an undergraduate at the Cornell in Washington program. “I took a stab at politics, and I’m still in the political game, largely because of her.”
“She stayed true to this core belief that the law could be a mechanism for positive change,” Fabrizio said. “It’s so sad that she’s not here anymore, but she has successfully inspired a generation of young activists around the world who will forever carry that torch on onward.”
‘May her memory be a blessing’
The timing of Ginsburg’s death came at the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year — marking this joyous period with a stark grief.
For many Jewish students on campus, they heard the news in the middle of celebrating with their family or friends.
“Assigning a grieving process in the beginning of the Jewish New Year is really bizarre,” Ella Yitzhaki ’24 said. “I think any sort of grieving process on any sort of special occasion is really difficult. [The holiday] means joy and being around others; to know that her family is no longer around her is really, really hard for me to know just because I know how we all loved her.”
At Saturday’s 5 p.m. vigil, a solemn crowd gathered on the Arts Quad to share memories of the late justice and reflect on her impact. Avi Kupperman ’21, president of Cornell Hillel, reflected on the timing, offering a message of admiration for Ginsburg: “A person who dies on Rosh Hashanah is a person of the utmost righteousness.”
“Her death at the end of the year is significant because it means that, in the year of her passing, she was given as much to live it as possible,” Kupperman said.
The Brooklyn-born daughter of Russian Jews and devoted jurist turned cultural icon has left a large legacy and a changed country behind her as the nation turns to an uncertain future.
“I heard of Ruth’s death while I was reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish at the Rosh Hashanah service,” Justice Stephen Breyer said in a statement. “I thought: a great Justice; a woman of valour; a rock of righteousness; and my good, good friend.”
“The world is a better place for her having lived in it. And so is her family; her friends; the legal community; and the nation.”
‘When there are nine’: The second woman on the bench
After graduating from Cornell near the top of her class, Ginsburg attended Harvard Law School — one of nine women in a class of 500. She finished her final year of law school at the top of her class at Columbia University in 1959, following her husband Martin “Marty” Ginsburg ’53 to New York City.
In 1960, when Ginsburg wanted to be a clerk for the Supreme Court, she was denied the position because of her gender. Over thirty years later, after President Bill Clinton chose her to succeed Justice Byron R. White, the Senate confirmed the soft-spoken 60-year-old judge by a vote of 96 to 3.
“Our nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said in a statement.
But before her time on the courts, Ginsburg worked tirelessly for the protection of equality and the advancement of the rights of all people, particularly women. She worked at the American Civil Liberties Union and argued six sex discrimination cases before the Supreme court — winning five.
“No member of the Supreme Court has ever done more for issues of women’s rights, and gender equality than the justice,” said Prof. Trevor Morrison, law, New York University. Morrison clerked for Ginsburg in 2002 before serving on the faculty at Cornell Law and later becoming Dean of NYU Law.
Morrison specifically pointed to Ginsburg’s 1996 majority opinion for the landmark United States v. Virginia case, “a culmination of her career around issues of gender equality.”
In the case, the Supreme Court found Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions policy unconstitutional, violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.
“In this case, the violation is the categorical exclusion of women from an extraordinary educational leadership development opportunity afforded men,” Ginsburg said in the opinion announcement. “To cure that violation and to afford genuinely equal protection, women seeking and set forth a VMI quality education cannot be offered anything less.”
From her time arguing to an all-male court to her decades-long tenure, Ginsburg was a fixture on the court: Her legacy remains that the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection includes equality of the sexes.
According to the Chicago Sun Times, when asked when there would be enough female justices on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg — the second female supreme court justice and pioneering feminist — replied: “when there are nine.”
The ‘tough as nails’ fight to the end
Before her death, Ginsburg repeatedly vowed to stay on the court as long as her health held and she stayed mentally sharp; she did so through five separate battles with cancer.
“I have often said I would remain a member of the court as long as I can do the job full steam,” she said in July, announcing a recurrence of cancer. “I remain fully able to do that.”
The discovery of lesions on her liver in May was only her most recent medical setback. She had surgery for lung cancer and radiation treatment for pancreatic cancer in recent years. In 2012, she fractured two of her ribs. She also had surgery for early-stage pancreatic cancer in 2009 and treatment for colon cancer in 1999.
Now, just 46 days before the Nov. 3 election, there is now an open seat on the bench — setting off a battle over whether President Donald Trump and the GOP-led Senate should push through her replacement, or if the seat should remain vacant until the White House race is decided.
But Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have vowed to hold a vote on a Supreme Court nominee before November. When Justice Antonin Scalia died on Feb. 13, 2016, the GOP-led Senate held up President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland for 269 days.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” McConnell said when Scalia died. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
Just days before her death, as her strength waned, Ginsburg dictated a statement to her granddaughter Clara Spera: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
Her ‘just spectacularly special’ humanity
Beyond her clear political legacy, Ginsburg touched the lives of many — including of people who never met her. But to those who took a class with her or worked with her on the court, she is remembered as someone who deeply cared for the people around her.
NYU Law Dean Morrison clerked for Ginsburg when his daughter was a year old and said that the justice took an interest in them — asking after her as she grew up and eventually enrolled at Cornell.
“She really cared deeply for her clerks, not just as employees of hers but as people,” Morrison said. “Every one of our clerks and their families, we all became a kind of extended family, which is a sort of cliche, but in the case of Justice Ginsburg, it’s really true.”
In all her roles, Ginsburg was a staunch supporter of young women lawyers, helping to open opportunities and advance their careers.
“She placed me in my first internship, which she just did,” retired federal judge Shira Scheindlin J.D. ’75 recalled, describing how Ginsburg was sympathetic to her story because it mirrored her own: Scheindlin moved to the city with her two children to follow her husband.
“She was just spectacularly special and different — she was very good to me,” Scheindlin recalled. She took a class from Ginsburg in her third year of law school at Columbia after she transferred from Cornell.
Morrison recalled her sharp memory and ability to remember people she only briefly met, and the connections between them. Scheindlin said that years later, when she would run into Ginsburg at conferences, the justice always remembered her and would say hello.
“She always went out of her way to be kind,” Scheindlin said.