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Bill Clinton once said Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died today aged 87, was too thoughtful to be labelled. But many tried to do just that over the years.

As a United States Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg became something of a hero to liberal women for her decades-long battle in pursuit of women’s rights.

It eventually saw her become only the second female after Sandra Day O’Connor to make it to the highest court in the land.

While her battles in the courtroom made her legendary, it was only in recent years that Ginsburg transcended the boundaries of the legal sphere, hitting the “mainstream” and emerging as a pop culture icon.

Her name and face can be found in gift shops, on t-shirts and on badges, while her life story has been portrayed in not one but two movies.

The first, an Oscar-nominated documentary titled RBG — a nod to her nickname “the Notorious RBG” — and the second, a feature film On the Basis of Sex, which explored her court cases arguing for women’s rights.

But even in the midst of her growing celebrity, RBG remained true to her first passion: the law.

Bouts of poor health, including multiple cancer surgeries and a fall in 2018, did not deter her from fronting the bench.

She rarely missed court and continued to work until her final days.

The second and only surviving daughter of her working-class parents, Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression.

Growing up, she credited her mother Celia Bader — a garment factory worker who was not allowed to go to college — with instilling her with a passion for learning and a strong sense of independence.

It was her mother who also likely instilled in her a desire to fight for the rights of women.

The elder Bader herself marched in the suffragette parades to get the vote for women, Ginsburg revealed in an interview with CNN in 2018.

Celia Bader died the day before Ginsburg graduated from high school, after a long battle with cancer.

Ginsburg went on to study a bachelor of arts at New York’s Cornell University, which she described in a 2015 interview with the New York Times as a school for parents who wanted to make sure their daughter would find a man.

That promised experience would ring true. It was there she would meet Martin D Ginsburg — the first boy she knew who “cared that I had a brain”.

The pair married in 1954, the same year Ruth graduated.

“Marty was an extraordinary man. He was so secure in himself that he never regarded me as any kind of threat. He was my biggest booster,” Ginsburg told the New York Times.

Her marriage to Martin also secured her family’s approval to let her study law at Harvard Law School a year after she gave birth to her daughter Jane in 1955.

It was while at Harvard that Ginsburg had her first real experiences with discrimination.

In later years she spoke of how she — along with the other first-year female students — were escorted by distinguished faculty members to a dinner hosted by then-dean Erwin Griswold.

After dinner they were made to sit in a semi-circle of chairs in his living room and asked “what we were doing at the law school, occupying a seat that could be held by a man”.

Even after graduating top of her class, Ginsburg faced barriers as a woman, struggling to find work at a law firm.

Many of them had put up “Men Only” sign-up sheets. She told the Stanford Lawyer magazine she had three strikes against her:

“A Jew, a woman, and a mother — that was a bit much.”

But she persisted, finding work as a law clerk and then a professor of law before eventually making it her mission to prove that sex discrimination was every bit as real and as unjust as racial discrimination.

Over the 1970s she led the charge for women’s rights, fighting six gender discrimination cases in the US Supreme Court. She won five of them.

It was during that time she realized the importance of choosing the right case.

“First you had to have a popular movement behind you. Public opinion was vitally important,” she said.

In the Frontiero vs Richardson case, where she argued women serving in the military had been denied the same benefits as men, RBG showed that behind her softly spoken demeanor was a steely mind.

“I ask no favors for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks,” she said in January 17, 1973, a quote taken from abolitionist Sarah Grimke.

But it was in a landmark discrimination case that Ginsburg proved she would be a force to be reckoned with.

Ginsburg, along with her tax attorney husband Martin, argued for Charles Moritz, a single man who was denied a $296 tax deduction because he was a male caregiver.

In 1970, Mr Moritz had hired a nurse to help care for his elderly mother when he was away on business.

When he tried to claim a tax deduction for the expense, he discovered that as a bachelor — unlike a woman, a widower or divorced man — he was ineligible.

The Ginsburgs argued that was unconstitutional sex-based discrimination and assumed only women cared for others.

Their victory in the Supreme Court helped to topple hundreds of American laws, which had been based on archaic ideas about men’s and women’s roles.

Her work impressed President Jimmy Carter, who appointed her to the second highest court in the land, the US Court of Appeals, in 1980.

When president Bill Clinton had a vacancy to fill on the US Supreme Court in 1993, his first choice for the job was a man, his friend Mario Cuomo.

But the governor of New York politely declined the offer in a fax to the White House.

And so the president agreed to meet with Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the behest of his wife Hillary Clinton and his then attorney-general Janet Reno.

“I knew after about 10 minutes that I was going to give her the job,” Clinton said last year.

Part of her appeal was that she was viewed as a moderate judge on the US Court of Appeals.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg cannot be called a liberal or a conservative; she has proved herself too thoughtful for such labels,” Clinton said.

After a smooth confirmation process, 96 out of 99 senators voted in favour of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nomination.

“Within hours of the Senate vote, Judge Ginsburg, who argued six cases before the Justices as an advocate for women’s rights, returned to the Court to inspect her new office,” The New York Times reported at the time.

Her first decade on the bench gave away no clues of the international pop culture icon Associate Justice Ginsburg would eventually become.

Softly spoken, she may have been easy to overlook, but she could be devastatingly powerful with a pen in her hand.

In 2000, when neither George W Bush or Al Gore won enough votes to claim the White House, they petitioned the US Supreme Court to intervene.

In a five-to-four decision, the court effectively handed the presidency to Bush by shutting down a recount of votes in the state of Florida.

“I dissent,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote.

It may not sound like much, but US Supreme Court justices almost always write “I respectfully dissent” when they break with the majority of their colleagues.

To drop the word ‘respectfully’ from her decision was the judicial equivalent of a mic drop.

But it wasn’t until O’Connor retired in 2005 that the last woman standing on the US Supreme Court really found her voice.

In 2013, Ginsburg opposed the court’s move to allow nine states and several counties to change their voting laws without first having them approved by the Department of Justice, in the case of Shelby County v Holder.

“The Court’s opinion can hardly be described as an exemplar of restrained and moderate decision-making,” she wrote of the attempt to enact changes that would be used to disenfranchise people of color as voters.

“Quite the opposite. Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the Voting Rights Act.”

An internet phenomenon was born.

New York University law student Shana Knizhnik created a Tumblr in which she dubbed the five-foot, octogenarian Supreme Court justice “the Notorious RBG”.

It was a reference to hip hop artist The Notorious BIG. And so it was that social media morphed Ginsburg from a somewhat faceless judge to a national liberal icon.

Eventually, she became a recurring character on sketch show Saturday Night Live — played by Kate McKinnon.

A book was spawned. An Oscar-nominated documentary, RBG, followed. Then came a Hollywood film, Based on Sex, the screenplay of which was written by her nephew Daniel Stiepleman.

But Ginsburg’s time on the bench was not without issues. As well as suffering bouts of illness, she was criticized, particularly by Democrats, for not retiring when Barack Obama was president.

The move had been hinted at off and on since 2011, including by a Harvard law professor who wrote a piece gently urging Ginsburg to retire while a Democrat was still in charge.

In response to the calls, Ginsburg vowed in a 2013 interview to stay on the Supreme Court as long as her health and intellect remained strong.

She also suggested that the next term was likely to produce major decisions, pointing at piles of briefs in cases concerning campaign contribution limits and affirmative action.

While her achievements inspired young lawyers and activists, RBG also won fans for some of her lighter moments. Take for example, her workouts to opera recordings.

Having spent her whole life advocating for the rights of women, Ginsburg did not shy away from using fashion to communicate her opinions.

She was well-known for wearing a collar, a tradition established by O’Connor, who had first sought to feminize her robe with white lace.

But Ginsburg took it a few steps further, telling Katie Couric in an interview that she had a “dissenting” collar and a “majority opinion” collar.

“When I’m announcing an opinion for the court, this is the collar I wear,” she said, while holding an embellished gold jabot with pendants.

But she also got into some hot water over the years for offering more direct opinions.

In 2016 then-Republican presidential contender Donald Trump called for Ginsburg to resign, tweeting: “Her mind is shot”.

It came after she told CNN she viewed Mr Trump as a “faker” and that she was worried about the country’s future if he won the White House.

Ginsburg later expressed regret, saying: “Judges should avoid commenting on a candidate for public office. In the future I will be more circumspect.”

As the court’s oldest justice, and one of four liberals on the nine-person Supreme Court, every Ginsburg health scare in recent years caused a collective intake of breath on the American left.

Her health problems were even fodder for late-night comedians. Her death gives President Donald Trump the opportunity to move the court further to the right.

The Court’s 5-4 conservative majority was restored in October 2018, when the Senate confirmed Mr. Trump’s nominee Brett Kavanaugh, despite sexual misconduct allegations against him.

For years, Ginsburg fended off suggestions she ought to retire so that a president of the same party that appointed her could choose her successor.

“I think one should stay as long as she can do the job,” she said in 2013.

She was hopeful time was on her side. Her former most senior colleague, justice John Paul Stevens, stepped down at 90.

After his death aged 99 last year, Ginsburg told NPR she’d told Stevens her dream was to serve the court as long as he did.

“And his immediate response was, ‘Stay longer!'” she said.

But her ultimate dream was a future where the entire Supreme Court is helmed by women justices and women justices alone.

“People ask me sometimes, ‘When do you think there will be enough? When will there be enough women on the court?'” she said at Georgetown University in 2015.

“And my answer is, when there are nine.”

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