In March 15, 2019, legions of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s admirers celebrated her 86th birthday by dropping to the ground and grinding out the Super Diva’s signature push-ups on the steps of courthouses around the country.
This unusual tribute to a Supreme Court justice was one of the many ways a new generation has shown the love to the five-foot tall legal giant who made the lives they live possible. But by Sept. 18, her iron will and gritty determination was no longer enough to propel her to court. Ginsburg died on Friday at the age of 87 of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, according to a statement released by the Supreme Court, per the Associated Press.
In the early ’70s—when Gloria Steinem was working underground as a Playboy Bunny to expose sexism, and Betty Friedan was writing a feminist manifesto about “the problem with no name”—Ginsburg named the problem, briefed it, and argued it before the Supreme Court of the United States.
She was 37 then, on the receiving end of so much of the discrimination she would work to end, and she was just undertaking her first job as a litigator—as co-director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. In her “very precise” way, as Justice Harry Blackmun put it, she studied title, chapter, clause, and footnote of the legal canon that kept women down and overturned those that discriminated on the basis of sex in five landmark cases that extended the 14th Amendment’s equal rights clause to women. In that long, hard slog, she employed some novel devices, using “gender” (so as not to distract male jurists with the word “sex”) and representing harmed male plaintiffs when she could find one (to show that discrimination hurts everyone). And she never raised her voice.
When she was done, a widower could get the same Social Security benefits as a woman and a woman could claim the same military housing allowance as a man. A woman could cut a man’s hair, buy a drink at the same age, administer an estate, and serve on a jury.
By the time she left the ACLU, and before she donned her first black robe, Ginsburg had brought about a small revolution in how women were treated, wiping close to 200 laws that discriminated off the books. Over the next decades, first as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, and then as the second woman on the Supreme Court, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, she would become to women what Thurgood Marshall was to African Americans. She employed the same clause in the 14th Amendment he used to free former slaves to extend protection to the mentally ill who wanted to live outside institutions, gays who wanted to marry, immigrants who lived in fear, and, of course, females: those who wanted to be cadets at the Virginia Military Institute, have access to abortion, and, when pregnant, not be fired if they couldn’t perform duties their condition made, temporarily, impossible.
Her fans’ courthouse celebration was also a plea for the bionic Ginsburg to carry on, at least until the 2020 election. There was high anxiety when she fell asleep at the State of the Union in 2015 (a case of enjoying a fine California wine brought by Justice Anthony Kennedy to the justices pre-speech dinner) and even more when she missed the court’s 2019 opening session in January, her first such absence in 26 years. She hadn’t fully recovered from surgery to remove three cancerous nodules from her lungs. But she took her seat as the senior justice next to Chief Justice John Roberts in mid-February, picking up her full caseload. That following summer, she went through radiation to treat a cancerous tumor on her pancreas, her fourth brush with cancer. In July 2020, she announced that cancer had returned yet again. Despite receiving chemotherapy for lesions on her liver, the 87-year-old reasserted that she was still “fully able” to continue serving on the Supreme Court.