In December 2018, I interviewed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for my history of the American Civil Liberties Union. She was the most soft-spoken person I have ever interviewed. At points, her voice was barely audible. Yet she was one of the biggest personalities I have ever met: funny yet serious, self-deprecating yet self-assured.

We talked at length about a defining mission of her life: her quest to convince society of what should have been perfectly obvious — that women were fully equal to men. She knew firsthand what discrimination meant. Despite sharing the first-place spot in her 1959 graduating class from Columbia Law School, no law firm would hire her: “Only two asked me to come to an interview.”

With such high-octane positions blocked, Ginsburg clerked in a district court in New York and then became a research associate in a Columbia Law School project studying the judicial system in Sweden. She discovered that in Sweden, unlike in America, female judges were common: “It was not at all unusual to have a two-worker family,” although the wife was generally expected “to have dinner on the table at 7.”

RBG’s first cases before high court 

As a Cornell University undergraduate in the early 1950s, Ginsberg had been a researcher for constitutional law professor Robert Cushman, whose condemnation of McCarthyism inspired dreams of activism: “I thought I could earn a living with a paying job but also have time to help right the things that were wrong in society.” Her exposure to Sweden, where women were afforded opportunities not generally offered in America, reawakened her passion for social change. But such feelings, she concluded, had to be put “on a back burner. … There really weren’t the tools” to accomplish much at the time.

In 1963, Ginsberg became a law professor at Rutgers University. A chance encounter with ACLU legal director Melvin Wulf, who worked at a camp she attended as a youth, led her to volunteer for the ACLU. One evening her husband, an expert in tax law, shared some documents. “I said, Marty, you know I don’t read tax cases,” recalled Ginsburg. “Read this one,” he replied.

The case revolved around Charles Moritz, a Denver resident who lived with and cared for his 89-year-old mother. He hired a caretaker when he traveled and deducted those expenses, which the IRS disallowed. The tax court sided with the IRS, ruling that a single man (unlike a woman, widower or divorcee) was not entitled to the “dependent care” deduction.

Ginsburg thought that if she could prove the tax court wrong, an “important foothold will be secured for women’s rights cases.” She took the case. Assisted by Wulf and her husband, Martin, Ginsburg argued that it was “arbitrary and unequal treatment” to treat Moritz differently just because he was a never-married man.

While awaiting a decision from the Court of Appeals, Ginsburg took on another ACLU case. Sally Reed’s 16-year-old son had apparently committed suicide. Although the youth possessed nothing of value, his mother wanted to administer his estate — instead of leaving the job to his father, from whom she was divorced, and whom she blamed for their son’s death. Idaho refused. Probate court, by law, “preferred” the male.

RBG and women’s rights: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and work propelled women’s equality front and center

 A local lawyer had handled the case in the lower courts but needed help as it headed to the Supreme Court. Ginsburg happily took the case, which she thought shed light on Moritz. She hoped the cases would arrive before the nation’s highest court simultaneously — and the justices would make the obvious connection: “My dream was that … the court could see Moritz, discrimination against a man, and Reed, against a woman — both irrational.”

But the lower court moved too slowly. On Nov. 22, 1971, the Supreme Court unanimously decided in favor of Sally Reed, concluding that to “give a mandatory preference to members of either sex … is to make the very kind of arbitrary legislative choice forbidden by … the Fourteenth Amendment.” On Nov. 22, 1972, the 10th Circuit decided the Moritz case. Citing the new Supreme Court precedent, it concluded that Moritz was entitled to his deduction. They “waited for Reed,” observed Ginsburg.

RBG was a legal legend and embodied integrity

In the 1970s, recruited by executive director Aryeh Neier, Ginsburg launched the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and led it for several years. She took pride in playing a similar role to that of the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, one of her heroes. Like Marshall, she helped people accept the idea that discrimination had no place in the administration of basic rights. She was proud to be compared to Marshall but unfailingly pointed out that he faced different challenges: “I was never in (physical) danger. It’s so remarkable to wake up in the morning in some Southern town and not know whether you’d be alive at the end of the day.” 

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She learned from Marshall’s work that sometimes, you had to prepare society before asking it to take a big step forward. A decision such as Brown v. Board of Education (which prohibited racial segregation in public education) rested on a foundation of less ambitious cases: “By the time they got to Brown, there were these building blocks in place.” 

Ginsburg was not simply a legal legend; she was the embodiment of civility, commitment, compassion and common sense. Her fans are in mourning not just because of the loss of an extraordinary American, but also because the values she represented, integrity in public service high among them, seem in danger of dying along with her. 

Ellis Cose is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of “Democracy, If We Can Keep It: The ACLU’s 100-Year Fight for Rights in America,” which was published in July by The New Press, and from which this column was adapted. Cose’s “The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America” was published by Amistad last week. Follow Cose on Twitter: @EllisCose

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of the biggest personalities I’ve ever met





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