FOR SOMEONE WHO MADE HER NAME AS a crusading feminist lawyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had an intriguing way of choosing her career. As a freshman at Cornell University she became friendly with sophomore Martin Ginsburg. When they eventually began discussing marriage. they decided it might be a good idea if they went into the same field, so they would have something in common. Neither professed any strong preference. In the end, they picked the law by process of elimination.

It turned out to be an auspicious choice. Not only did Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now 60, go on to become one of the most renowned feminist litigators in the country, she also has enjoyed a distinguished career as a federal judge. That record of achievement was capped last week when President Clinton nominated her to the U.S. Supreme Court. With the surprise choice winning near-unanimous praise in the Senate, swift confirmation appears to be a foregone conclusion.

If so, it will be one of the few times in her life that Ginsburg has not had to struggle for what she wanted. Born in Brooklyn and raised an only child, Ruth was 17 when her mother, Celia Bader, died of cancer. In her Rose Garden speech last week, Ginsburg offered a touching tribute to her memory. "I pray that I may be all that she would have been." said Ginsburg, "had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve." As it was, Ginsburg's father, who owned a small clothing store, tried to discourage her from going to law school after college, arguing that teaching was a more sensible choice.

She joined her new husband as a student at Harvard Law School anyway, but quickly encountered more resistance. Once, during her first year, Ruth was invited to a reception. There the dean asked each of the women—there were only nine in a class of 500—why they had chosen to go to law school. "She was told: 'All of you women are occupying seats that could be taken by qualified men,' " says friend Richard Epstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. "She never forgot that."

As if in response, Ginsburg attacked her legal studies with astonishing zeal. Her classmates called her "Ruthless Ruthie" for her prodigious work habits, and she was elected editor of the Harvard Law Review. For her final year, she transferred to Columbia Law School in New York City, where Martin had taken a job at a law firm. Although they now had a young daughter, Jane (son James was horn in 1965), Ruth somehow managed to make her life appear seamless. "She never seemed flustered," marvels Marie Garibaldi, a Columbia classmate who now serves on the New Jersey supreme court. "You never got the sense she was rushing or in a hurry."

Despite her academic achievements, the legal profession was in no hurry to embrace her. Though she had graduated tied for first in her class, her hopes of becoming a clerk at the Supreme Court were dashed when Justice Felix Frankfurter turned her down because of her sex. Instead she turned to teaching, winding up at her alma mater, Columbia, where she became the first woman ever granted tenure at the law school. (Nineteen years later, daughter Jane, now 38, became a tenured law professor at the same school.)

But Ginsburg's real impact came as a litigator. During the 1970s, as founder of the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, she played a major role in virtually every sex discrimination case that came before the Supreme Court. Among her more notable victories was a 1973 decision that struck down a U.S. military policy that granted more generous housing and benefits to men and their dependents than to women and theirs. In 1980, Jimmy Carter named her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. A few years ago at a Supreme Court anniversary celebration, noted constitutional scholar Erwin Griswold singled out two lawyers in modern times who had altered the nation's course—Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Though his mother has always been burdened with a heavy workload, says son James, 27, a law student at the University of Chicago who is on leave to work as a classical record producer, she was anything but an absentee parent. "The family was always home for dinner," says James. "And a night did not go by when my mother did not check to see that I was doing my schoolwork. She was always there when I wanted her to be—and even when I didn't."

These days Ruth and Martin, 61, live in a co-op in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington. In certain respects, the Ginsburgs' domestic life resembles the gender-blind ideal that Ruth has fought for. Martin, a top tax attorney who counts Ross Perot as a client and friend, does most of the cooking. And ever since Ruth crashed into a gate with her car a few years ago, Martin has driven his wife to work every day. That, at least, is one thing that will probably change if she is confirmed. Supreme Court Justices have access to their own cars and drivers.

BILL HEWITT
NINA BURLEIGH, ROCHELLE JONES and MARGIE SELLINGER in Washington and LUCHINA FISHER in chicago

  • Contributors:
  • Nina Burleigh,
  • Rochelle Jones,
  • Margie Sellinger,
  • Luchina Fisher.