“Rigorous but warm-hearted.”
This is how former President Bill Clinton described Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) in the opening remarks before her lecture in Little Rock on Tuesday, Sept. 3. Ginsburg spoke as part of the Kumpuris Lecture Series in Little Rock organized by the Clinton Presidential Center. Unsurprisingly, Verizon Arena was packed, and I was lucky enough to be one in attendance.
RBG was appointed by Clinton in 1993, joining Sandra Day O’Connor as the second woman on the bench. Her journey to the nation’s highest ranking judicial court wasn’t an easy one — far from it.
Ginsburg’s mother died only one day before getting to see her daughter graduate high school and, later, go on to graduate top of her undergraduate class at Cornell University. Ginsburg soon thereafter married another fellow law student, and they had their first child before the couple began law school at Harvard.
As if attending law school as a mother and wife wasn’t challenging enough, Ginsburg’s husband was diagnosed with cancer during the course of their studies. They persevered. Attending classes in the morning for both herself and her husband, she would then join him at the hospital with his notes for the afternoon. In the evenings, she spent time with her young daughter before bedtime, then turned back to her own studies, averaging about two hours of sleep per night.
“We always believed we would prevail,” she said in her Sept. 3 lecture.
After her husband beat the odds and recovered, he graduated from Harvard. She quickly followed as a graduate from Columbia University after transferring — top of her class, of course. Martin Ginsburg found a job with a law firm quickly.
Ruth did not.
And so began a career of RBG battling odds stacked against her as a woman in a field dominated, at the time, by men. She eventually taught law at Rutgers University Law School before returning to teach at Columbia. During the 1970s, Ginsburg argued six historic cases regarding gender equality before the Supreme Court — she won five of them.
After being elected to the U.S. Court of Appeals by former President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ginsburg accepted the appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993, where she still serves today at age 86.
While attending her lecture in Little Rock this week, I actively fought back tears three times during the event. It was unexpected, though not unpleasant.
The first wave of emotion happened before anyone even took the stage. The lecture opened with video footage from Ginsburg being sworn in to the Supreme Court in 1993. I was suddenly watching the video through blurry eyes and rapid blinking.
The second onslaught of tears hit me when she referred to the other two current women justices as her sisters-in-law.
The final threat of tears came as Justice Ginsburg answered why she was even there in Little Rock — we all knew it didn’t really make sense with timing. After a year of very serious health issues, it seemed almost odd that she would use the energy for a lecture in Little Rock, Ark., especially considering she just finished her last round of radiation on Aug. 23, less than two weeks previous.
Ginsburg answered the question simply: She had already made a commitment to speak, and — just like every other challenge she had faced through the years — RBG refused to back down.
We should all strive to be a little more like the honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Rigorous as the judge who has served diligently for almost three decades. Warm-hearted as the wife who took notes and attended law classes for her husband as he battled cancer. Notorious as the woman who has always worked for something bigger than herself.
“Rigorous but warm-hearted.”