Aug. 10, 2022

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Joins the Supreme Court

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Joins the Supreme Court

August 10, 1993. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is sworn in as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 107th justice, becoming only the second woman in history to serve on the country’s highest court.


Cold Open

It’s July 20th, 1993, in Washington DC. 

Inside the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room, Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg sits before the committee for the first day of her confirmation hearings.

First to kick off the questioning is committee chairman, Joe Biden. 

"BIDEN: Let me begin now with the questioning, I'd like to begin by asking you about how you will go about interpreting our Constitution, Judge."

For two hours, Ruth answers questions from the committee about her judicial philosophy and methodology. But throughout the hearing, she is reluctant to answer questions about her personal views on certain issues. But there’s one topic Ruth has no qualms about addressing.

"HATCH: this issue is going to be before the Court for a long time in the future. But today, having open the door on specific issues such as abortion… In my view, it’s impossible as a matter of principle to distinguish Dred Scott V. Sanford and the Lochner cases from the Court’s substantive due process privacy cases like Roe versus Wade. The methodology is the same, the difference is only in the results, which hinge on the personal subjective values of the judge deciding the case." 

At this, Ruth’s response is immediate.

"RUTH: In one case, the Court was affirming the right of one man to hold another man in bondage. And the other line of cases, the Court is affirming the right of the individual to be free. So I do see that there’s a sharp distinction between the two lines."

"HATCH: I think substantively, there may be, but the fact of the matter is it’s the same type of judicial reasoning without the constitutional underpinnings."

"RUTH: The position I have given you, if you asked me how do I justify saying that Roe has two underpinnings, the equal dignity of the woman, the personhood, the idea of individual autonomy, and decision making? I point to those two decisions and say that I think that they supply the underpinnings for that-"

"HATCH: I understand but at least I differ with you on using the 14th amendment to justify, but at least you found some constitutional underpinning."

"RUTH: Senator Hatch, you know that one, I feel that it's wonderful for an academic or judge to be exposed to criticism. I've been criticized for saying that legislators have any role in this. I've been criticized for saying that the Court should not have solved it all in one fell swoop. So, I appreciate that I am never going to please all of the people all of the time on this issue. I can only try to say what in my position..."

Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be the first Supreme Court nominee to offer such unflinching support about the constitutional right to abortion during a confirmation hearing. Twenty-nine years later, video clips of her defense of abortion rights will go viral on the day the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. In 1993, Ruth’s remarks on abortion will cause some senators to bristle. But in the end, Ruth will easily win her spot on the Supreme Court with a vote of 96-3 in favor of her confirmation.

Three weeks later, Ruth will become the first Jewish female justice and only the second woman in history to serve on the United State Supreme Court. From The Bench, Ruth will advance her pursuit for gender equality, becoming known as one of the court’s most ardent protectors of women’s rights after she is sworn in on August 10th, 1993.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is August 10th, 1993: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is sworn in as Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Act One: A Tough Education

It’s the fall of 1956 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At the home of the Harvard Law School’s dean, Ruth sits at a dinner table alongside eight other female students. Together, Ruth and her peers comprise the only women in the class of over 500. But, Ruth isn’t surprised by their small numbers.

It was only six years ago that Harvard Law School even began admitting women at all. On campus, the dorms and the restrooms in many of the buildings are only for men. And by in large, female students like Ruth remain an anomaly. But Ruth doesn’t mind. For her, attending Harvard is a dream opportunity.

Two years ago, Ruth graduated from Cornell University as the highest-ranking female student in her class. A month later, she married her college boyfriend, Marty, and followed him to Oklahoma where he served as an officer in the Army Reserve. There, Ruth worked for the Social Security Administration; but was demoted after becoming pregnant with her first child.

Though there was little expectation for Ruth to be anything other than a mother, Ruth knew she wanted more. So, when Marty decided to return to law school at Harvard, Ruth saw her chance to pursue a career in law herself, while still caring for their 14-month-old child.

But tonight, Ruth has stepped away from her childcare duties to attend a dinner hosted by the dean for all the women in the college’s first-year class.

As Ruth finishes her meal, she accepts a cigarette from another guest. As she takes it, Dean Griswold rises from his seat and ushers the women into the living room.

There, Ruth sees the room’s chair arranged in a horseshoe. As she sits down, Ruth grabs a nearby ashtray and places it in her lap. She listens as the dean asks each of the women a pointed question: what were they doing at the law school, occupying a seat that could have been held by a man?

The question catches Ruth and her fellow peers off-guard. 

Ruth listens as the first student stands up and eases some of the tension in the room with her tongue-in-cheek answer: “Dean Griswold, there are 9 of us. There are 500 of them. What better place to find a man?”

The dean chuckles and moves on to the next student. One by one, the dean makes his way around the circle until he gets to Ruth. As dean poses the same question to her, Ruth’s nerves start to build.

As she stands up, Ruth forgets about the ashtray still balanced on her lap. She blushes as it clatters to the ground, sending cigarette butts and ash all over the dean’s living room floor. Feverishly, Ruth apologizes for the mess.

Then, she halfheartedly mumbles an answer to Dean’s question. She says she’s at Harvard Law because her husband is in his second year at the college and she thinks it’s important for a wife to understand her husband’s work.

The response comes naturally to Ruth, but it’s not her real answer. In truth, even though Marty is a year ahead of her, Ruth took the Law entrance exams even before he did. Ruth knows she isn’t at law school because of him; she’s at law school because she wants to study law. But, Ruth still doesn’t feel comfortable voicing her ambition as a woman.

But eventually, Ruth's actions speak louder than her words ever could. In the ensuing months, Ruth’s drive and talent become apparent to everyone at Harvard Law. Before long, Ruth shoots to the top of her class. She even becomes one of the first women to serve as editor for the college’s esteemed law review.

Still, Ruth faces her fair share of challenges. In her classes, professors rarely call on their female students. At the library, Ruth is even denied access to the periodical room because she is a woman.

But gender discrimination is only half of Ruth’s battle at law school. In Ruth’s second year at Harvard, tragedy strikes when her husband Marty develops testicular cancer.

For Ruth, it’s an unfortunately familiar struggle. The day before her high school graduation, Ruth’s mother died from cancer. Following the loss, Ruth became determined to live out the dreams of education and empowerment that her mother strove to instill in her. But, with a sick husband and a young child, Ruth faces an uphill battle.

So, for months, Ruth strikes a delicate balance between looking after her daughter and taking care of her husband. She types his class notes and papers, while also doing her own schoolwork. Often, Ruth only sleeps for two hours a night. But somehow, she manages to stay on top of it all.

With Ruth’s help, Marty receives his highest grades and graduates on time in the spring. But soon, Ruth’s journey at Harvard gets cut short when Marty lands a job in New York City. Eager to stay with her husband, Ruth transfers to Columbia where she earns her law degree and graduates at the top of her class.

Upon graduation, Ruth will begin carving her path in the legal field. But despite her accolades and recommendations, Ruth will struggle to find work. One Supreme Court Justice will decline to even interview her for a clerkship because she’s a woman. But, at the forceful insistence of one of her Columbia law professors, a judge in New York will eventually give Ruth a chance. And finally, Ruth will have her foot in the door. From there, she will rise through the ranks of a field determined to shut her out.

Act Two: The Start of a Movement

It’s 1969 at Rutgers University.

Inside a classroom, Ruth proudly stands in front of a group of students. She’s the law school’s second-ever female professor. And today, as she gives her lecture, she reflects back on the journey that brought her here.

After clerking for a judge in New York for two years, Ruth returned to academia. In New York, Ruth worked as a research associate and then as an associate director of the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure. Then, in 1963, Ruth was offered a position teaching civil procedure at Rutgers Law School.

The job was a great opportunity for Ruth. But it came with a disturbing caveat: Ruth would be paid less than her male colleagues because her husband already has a well-paying job. Ruth accepted the offer, but she quickly joined an equal pay campaign with other women teaching at the university. Together, they filed a federal class-action discrimination case, and won, resulting in substantial raises for all of them. Since then, Ruth has been happily working at the university and become a popular professor within the law school. And, today, Ruth’s popularity brings her a new opportunity.

As Ruth’s lecture comes to an end, students begin to file out the doors. But Ruth notices a group of students who stay behind. Together, they approach Ruth and ask her to lead a seminar on women and the law.

Women’s legal rights are not Ruth’s current area of expertise. But Ruth does think it would be a worthwhile seminar to provide. And she bets it will be a good learning experience for her students and her. As one of the only female law professors in the country, Ruth knows there are few more qualified to teach it anyways. So, Ruth gladly accepts her students’ proposal. 

Soon, she gets to work preparing her new course. But as Ruth tries to develop the curriculum, she discovers there’s very little information on the subject. Soon, Ruth realizes she has the opportunity to make an even bigger impact.

Before long, Ruth volunteers as a faculty adviser to help found Rutgers’ Women’s Rights Law Reporter,the first law journal in the United States to address women’s rights exclusively. Then, three years after starting the seminar, Ruth takes on another project; she becomes the founder and director of the Women's Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union. There, Ruth sets her sights on using the courts to take on gender discrimination nationwide.

Through her work with the Women’s Rights Project, Ruth charts a strategic course. Rather than ask the Court to end gender discrimination all at once, Ruth decides to attack the problem in small increments. With each step she takes, she aims at a specific discriminatory stature and builds on each successive victory. And she also doesn’t confine her cases to those with female plaintiffs. Instead, Ruth often picks male plaintiffs to help demonstrate the harm of gender discrimination to both women and men.

With Ruth at its helm, the Women's Rights Project and other ACLU initiatives participate in more than 300 gender discrimination cases by 1974. Between 73 and 78, Ruth herself argues six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court. Of the six, she wins five. And in each case, Ruth persuades the court to appreciate that the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection applies to discrimination based not just on race, but also on sex.

Then in October 1978, a new opportunity comes Ruth’s way when Congress passes the Omnibus Judgeship Act. Not only does this new law increase the number of federal judges in district and circuit courts, but it works to ensure that the judgeship is more diverse.

Three months after the law passes, Ruth applies to be a nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and applies again for the District of Columbia Circuit. Three months after that, President Jimmy Carter nominates Ruth to sit on the DC Circuit where she will serve as a judge for 13 years.

But then, in 1993, Ruth’s biggest opportunity yet will come her way; one she previously never thought possible; the chance to serve on the highest court in the land.

On June 14th, 1993, President Bill Clinton will announce his nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. Two months and several days of confirmation hearings later, Ruth will become the U.S. Supreme Court’s 107th justice, carrying with her a vision of a more equal and just society.

Act Three: From Judge to Justice

It’s August 10th, 1993 at the White House. 

There, Chief Justice John Roberts, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, President Bill Clinton, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg gather before a small crowd for her swearing-in ceremony.

Cameras flash and applause thunders as the three take their spot on a small stage at the front of the room.

"CLINTON: Please be seated. Welcome to the White House. It is my distinct honor to introduce the chief justice of the Supreme Court."

As a hush falls over the audience, Ruth places her hand on a bible and takes her oath.

"REHNQUIST: Justice Ginsburg will you raise your right hand and repeat after me: I Ruth Bader Ginsberg do solemnly swear…"

"RUTH: I Ruth Bader Ginsburg do solemnly swear…"

"REHNQUIST: That I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States."

"RUTH: That I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States."

As Ruth finishes, she breaks out into a wide grin.

"REHNQUIST: So, help me god."

"RUTH: So, help me god. (applause)"

The crowd erupts in applause. And blinking back tears, Ruth steps in front of the stage’s lectern and begins her prepared address.

"RUTH: Times are changing. The president made that clear by appointing me and just last week naming five other women to article three courts."

Ruth smiles again as she mentions a quote she enjoyed hearing from her only other female colleague on the bench.

"RUTH: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recently quoted Oklahoma Supreme Court justice Jean Poin who was asked, “Do women judges decide cases differently by virtue of being women?” Justice Coin replied that in her experience a wise old man and a wise old woman reached the same conclusion. I agree, but I also have no doubt that women like persons of different racial groups and ethnic origins contribute what a fine jurist the late fifth circuit judge Alvin Reuben described as a distinctive medley of views influenced by differences in biology, cultural impact, and life experience. A system of justice will be the richer for diversity of background and experience. It will be the poorer in terms of appreciating what is at stake and the impact of its judgments if all of its members are cast from the same mold."

Then, Ruth ends her speech on an optimistic note.

"RUTH: In my lifetime, I expect there will be among federal judicial nominees based on the excellence of their qualifications as many sisters as brothers in law that prospect - that prospect is indeed cause for hope and its realization will be cause for celebration. Thank you. (applause) "

Ruth Bader Ginsburg will serve on the court from 1993 until her death from cancer in 2020. Her 27-year tenure on the court and her lifetime of advocacy for the legal equality of Americans will turn Ruth into a revered figure in the women’s rights movement; and earn her the Roosevelt Freedom Medal in 2015. To many, Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be remembered as one of the pioneers of gender equality, someone who broke barriers herself when she was sworn into the highest court in the land on August 10th, 1993.


Next on History Daily. August 11th, 1950. The alleged traitor Ethel Rosenberg is arrested on allegations of spying for the Soviet Union.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.