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08 Mar 2021


International Women’s Day – Who Inspires You?

As part of our International Women's Day celebrations, Danielle Howell, a senior associate in our clinical negligence department, tells us about a remarkable woman who made a lasting impact...

“As a young female looking to start a career in law, I was definitely inspired by the legendary Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was not only hugely successful in her legal work, but also established herself as a champion for gender equality and women’s rights throughout her long career.

“Only the second woman ever – and the first Jewish lawyer – to sit on the Supreme Court in the United States, Ginsburg had already gained a formidable reputation before being nominated to the court by Bill Clinton in 1993, ahead of over 40 candidates, all of whom were men.

“She served on the Supreme Court bench for 27 years and in 2010 went on to adopt the role of senior liberal justice.

“Born in Brooklyn, New York, she was the younger daughter of Jewish parents. While her Jewish identity remained important to her throughout her life, she moved away from strict religious observance after not being allowed to join a minyan (a group of Men) to mourn her mother’s death when she was 17.

“She was formidably clever with what has been described as an almost superhuman capacity for work in her youth. Her academic career was spectacular and although she had great opportunities, she also encountered prejudices.

“Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School, where she was one of only 9 women in a class of 500 men.  She faced considerable sexism during her studies and early career. At an entrance interview for Harvard, for example, the head of the law school had asked her how she could justify “taking the place of a qualified male?” and after graduating, she was initially refused a job as a clerk because she was a woman.

“She met her husband, Martin Ginsburg, a fellow law student, while at Harvard and married him a month after graduating in 1954. They went on to have two children, Jane and James. She transferred to Columbia Law School when Martin got a job in New York and was first in her class. While there, she taught herself Swedish in a little over a year to co-author a comparative study of Swedish and US law. She went on to become Columbia Law School’s first female tenured professor.

“What made her historically so important were her twin convictions that she remained firm to throughout her career – firstly, that there is discrimination against women in the US (and elsewhere) and secondly, that discrimination violates the American constitution.

“As director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project in the 1970s, she took part in more than 300 gender-related cases within two years and argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five.

“From 1980 she was a judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the United States’ second most powerful federal court.

“She believed the most important case to come before the Supreme Court during her time as a judge was the landmark 2015 ruling that legalised same-sex marriage across all states.

“Judge Ginsburg sadly passed away in September last year, aged 87, but her life story has inspired thousands of women and was even turned into a film, ‘On the basis of sex’ in 2018, where Hollywood actress Felicity Jones played the famous Supreme Court judge.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a true inspiration. She was a powerhouse, notoriously returning to work just days after breaking three ribs in a fall in her late eighties and continuing to take part in Supreme Court arguments remotely from hospital after gallbladder treatment last year. She remained vigilant to the end on the issues that were so important to her – women’s preventative health, abortion, the death penalty and voting rights – and will forever be remembered as a pioneer for women in law.”

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