Felicity Jones is set to star as famed judge and women’s rights pioneer Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a new film based on her illustrious career. Telling the story of how ‘RBG’ made it to one of the highest seats in the American Justice System, On the Basis of Sex is set to release in early 2019. But why is Ruth Bader Ginsburg so highly respected? And how important was she to the rise of women’s rights in the United States? We take a look at the true story of RBG…

True Story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: On the Basis of Sex

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

RBG was born Joan Ruth Bader on 15th March 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. At an early age her mother, Celia, noticed that there were several other girls in her daughter’s class named Joan. She therefore suggested to the teacher that she should call her daughter “Ruth” to avoid any confusion. The name has stuck ever since.

It was also Bader’s mother who installed a love of education into her, often taking her to the library for extra tuition. Ginsburg excelled at her high school but sadly Celia was diagnosed with cancer and died the day before her daughter’s high school graduation.

Bader went on to attend Cornell University to study law and graduated in 1954, finishing first in her class. The same year, she married Martin D. Ginsburg, a fellow law student she had been dating since she was 17.

Straight after University, Martin was drafted into the military, where he served for two years. Ruth worked for the Social Security Administration office in Oklahoma but was demoted after becoming pregnant with her first child. She gave birth to a daughter, Jane, in 1955.

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Harvard Law School & Tenure at Columbia Law School

Upon Martin’s return from the army in 1956, Ruth Bader Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School, where she was one of only nine women in a class of around 500 men. Ginsburg and the other female students faced plenty of discrimination with RBG claiming the Dean of Harvard Law asked the female law students, “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?” Despite the opposition, Ruth Ginsburg excelled academically and eventually became the first ever female member of the prestigious legal journal, the Harvard Law Review.

Having graduated from Harvard, Martin was offered a position at a law firm in New York City. Ginsburg therefore transferred to Columbia Law School and soon became the first ever female to be on two major law reviews: the Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review. In 1959, she earned her Juris Doctor degree at Columbia and was joint first in her class.

Despite her outstanding academic record, due to what she perceived as gender discrimination Ginsburg struggled to find law work post-graduation. That was until a Columbia professor refused to recommend any other graduates for a clerk job with U.S. District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri. Ginsburg clerked under Judge Palmieri for two years before deciding to join the Columbia Project on International Civil Procedure. She had been offered job at law firms, but always at a much lower salary than her male counterparts.

Having worked abroad in Sweden, she returned to the States in 1963 to accept a job as a professor at Rutgers University Law School, a position she held until accepting an offer to teach at Columbia in 1972. There, she became the first female professor at the school to earn tenure.

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RBG Legal Career

During her time at Columbia, RBG directed the influential Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), focusing on laws and government policies built on gender stereotypes. By 1974, the Women’s Rights Project and related ACLU projects had participated in over 300 gender discrimination cases. Between 1973 and 1976, Ginsburg herself had argued six landmark cases on gender equality before the U.S Supreme Court, winning five of them.

Despite her passion for women’s rights, Ginsburg was also a vehement advocate for all equal rights. One of the five cases she won before the Supreme Court, ‘Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld’ for example, involved a portion of the Social Security Act that favoured women over men because it granted certain benefits to widows but not widowers.

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Appointment to the Supreme Court

In 1980, Justice Ginsburg was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and in 1993, having presented cases before the Supreme Court, President Bill Clinton elevated her to the Supreme Court to fill the seat vacated by Justice Byron White. She was confirmed by the Senate, 96-3.

One of her most significant cases to date came in 1997, billed “United States v. Virginia”. The case marked a years-long effort by women to gain admission into the prestigious Virginia Military Institute (VMI), which had only admitted men since its inception in 1839. The case had begun in 1990 and in 1997 the Supreme Court ruled that VMI would be required to admit women, a decision penned by Ginsburg. The ramifications of the ruling were far reaching, with academies and institutions changing admissions policies across the country.

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RBG Legacy

Despite persistent rumours of retirement, at 85 years old, Justice Ginsburg still remains as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States to this day. In recent years she has been named one of 100 Most Powerful Women (2009) on the planet, one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year (2012), and one of Time’s 100 most influential people (2015).

In 1999, she won the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award for her contributions to gender equality and civil rights.

On 27th June 2010, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband, Martin, died of cancer. She described him as “the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.” A day after his death, Ruth was at work on the Court for the last day of the 2010 term. They were married for 56 years.

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On the Basis of Sex (2018)

In July 2017, it was reported that Felicity Jones would play the role of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a biographical film directed by Mimi Leder. Scripted by Daniel Stiepleman, ‘On the Basis of Sex’ (a phrase RBG quoted it in her majority opinion in the “United States v. Virginia” case) had made the 2014 blacklist for the best un-produced screenplays of the year. Armie Hammer was soon cast as her husband Martin D. Ginsburg. On the Basis of Sex will focus on the ‘Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld’ case, one of Ginsburg’s earliest.

Co-starring Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Jack Reynor, Stephen Root and Cailee Spaeny, On the Basis of Sex is set to hit cinema in the UK on Friday 4th January 2019. Ruth Bader Ginsburg will also appear in a small role. Check out the trailer below.


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