Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a pioneer for gender equality throughout her distinguished career. Her seminal jurisprudence paved the way for women to achieve equal footing in countless spheres of the law. With brilliance, sharp tact, and a "no bullsh*t" attitude, Ginsburg even achieved status as a bonafide pop culture icon (a rare achievement in the judiciary). Indeed, she was playfully dubbed "The Notorious RBG," a reference to the popular rapper The Notorious B.I.G. who shared her hometown of Brooklyn, New York.
But what many people don't know is that Ginsburg spent a lifetime of heart-wrenching adversity, and yet still flourished.
Ginsburg's Early Life
Ginsburg was born to very humble beginnings on March 15, 1933. Her father and mother worked low wage jobs during the height of the Great Depression. Ginsburg was extremely close to her mother, who instilled in her a passion for education (although her mother never went to college herself, she was resolute in the benefits that it would confer to her children).
Ginsburg attended James Madison High School and quickly excelled. Unfortunately, her mother struggled with cancer throughout Ginsburg's high school years and ultimately died the day before her graduation. This was the first tragedy in what would become a pattern of continuous hardship.
Ginsburg persevered in academics and graduated at the top of her class from Cornell University in 1954. While at Cornell, Ginsburg also met a man named Martin, and the two quickly fell in love and married.
After graduation, Ginsburg briefly put her education on hold in order to start a family. However, the first years of motherhood turned out to be especially challenging. Ginsburg was demoted from her job at the Social Security Office after her superiors discovered that she was pregnant. And, just weeks before Ginsburg gave birth to their first child, Martin was drafted into the military for two years of service.
Ginsburg's Experiences as a Law Student
Upon Martin's return from the military, the two enrolled at Harvard Law School. As if juggling the rigorous curriculum while raising children wasn't enough, life did not stop pummeling Ginsburg. During her first year of law school (known as the most demanding year of study), Martin was diagnosed with cancer. His cancer was severe and required extensive surgery and rehabilitation. Ginsburg took up the challenge of keeping her sick husband up-to-date with his studies while maintaining her own position at the very top of the class.
In addition to her personal struggles, Ginsburg suffered from the sexist social dynamics of the time. She was one of only 9 female students among a 500-person class. During her very first day on campus, the dean of the law school went so far as to ask her to justify why she should be allowed to take the spot of a man. Nevertheless, Ginsburg persisted and never failed to reach her academic goals. She served as the first female member of the Harvard Law Review and earned grades that placed her in the top echelon of students.
Martin eventually recovered from his cancer and graduated from Harvard Law. He accepted a job offer at a prestigious law firm in New York. However, Ginsburg still had one year of study left. She decided to move to New York with Martin and transferred to Columbia Law School, where she served on their Law Review and graduated first in her class.
Despite these sterling and nearly super-human achievements, Ginsburg was still plagued by the gender-based discrimination that women faced in the workplace in the 1960s. The top student from one of the most renowned law schools in the country experienced serious difficultly finding a job. Law firms were simply reluctant to hire any woman as an attorney, irrespective of her accomplishments. As history would later reveal, Ginsburg ultimately channeled the discrimination she faced into her fierce advocacy for equal protection under the law.
In 1999, some six years after being appointed to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg first disclosed that she was suffering from colon cancer. Ten years later, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Around the same time, Martin passed away from cancer. They had been married for 56 years, and, upon his death, she fondly described him as "the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.” Ginsburg's health struggles never stopped. She later underwent surgery to remove two cancerous growths from her lung, as well as surgery to remove cancerous lesions on her liver. She also had heart stent surgery in 2014 and multiple falls that resulted in broken ribs.
Despite all of this, Ginsburg did not miss a single day of oral arguments until the year 2018 — not for her chemotherapy treatments, not for her multiple surgeries, and not even to mourn Martin's death. Rather than letting life's cruel hand write her into despondency, Ginsburg found solace in her work, as she describes in the following quote:
I think my work is what saved me, because instead of dwelling on my physical discomforts, if I have an opinion to write or I have a brief to read, I know I’ve just got to get it done and so I have to get over it. This is another instance where I got very good advice from Justice O’Connor. Justice O’Connor had a mastectomy and she was on the bench nine days after her surgery. She told me in my first cancer bout with colorectal cancer, “Ruth, you schedule your chemotherapy for a Friday. Then you can get over it on Saturday and Sunday and be back in court on Monday.”
How was Ginsburg Able to Persist Through Hardship and Still Flourish?
In the last few decades, psychologists have popularized a new developmental framework: Orchids vs. Dandelions. In essence, plentiful research has bifurcated individuals into two distinguishable camps: Those who are resilient, able to cope with adversity and flourish in almost any environment (dandelions), versus those who are highly sensitive to their surroundings and need continuous structure in order to thrive (orchids).
As the theory goes, individuals are predisposed to certain genetic variants that either heighten or reduce their sensitivity to life stressors (often referred to as the “stress diathesis” model). For instance, research has established a robust link between depression and the serotonin transporter gene, 5-HT, which affects the processing of the mood-altering hormone serotonin (Collier et al., 1996). In 2003, a seminal long-term study showed that those with the "bad version" of the 5-HT gene were much more likely to experience serious bouts of depression if they had also experienced life stressors, whereas life stressors for those with the "good version" of the gene did not affect depression rates (Caspi et al., 2003). Further research has shown that individuals can respond to the same stressors with profoundly different reactions in their cortisol and autonomic nervous systems. Many parents of multiple children have seen the orchid vs. dandelion framework play out in real life. From nearly the moment of birth, some children can seem relatively unfazed by life's idiosyncrasies, while other children are ultra-sensitive to the most minor fluctuations.
Ginsburg, it appears, lived as a dandelion, seemingly inoculated to ground-shaking stressors. She lived her life with a unique tenacity, and it is likely that her ability to persevere was aided by certain genetic predispositions to resilience. Given that the genetic landscape of the human mind still exists largely uncharted, perhaps neuropsychological science missed an opportune chance to study Ginsburg's neurobiology and the extraordinary resilience it seems to have conferred.
(Interested if you are an orchid or a dandelion? Take a quick test here.)
Importantly, for those who identify as orchids, not all hope is lost. Quite the contrary: Some evidence suggests that orchids can actually thrive (and even surpass their dandelion counterparts) when placed in safe and supportive environments (Knafo et al., 2011; Suomi, 2011). While orchids are born with genes that heighten their sensitivity to stressors, these same genes might also heighten their (positive) response to structure and support. Indeed, several studies have shown that children in supportive environments with "orchid" genes actually fare better in metrics like happiness and creativity than those with "dandelion" genes (Bakermans-Kranenburg & van Ijzendoorn, 2006; Fergusson et al., 2011). Put another way, orchids may wilt if maltreated but flourish when pampered in a greenhouse.
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Caspi A, Sugden K, Moffitt TE, Taylor A, Craig IW, Harrington H, McClay J, Mill J, Martin J, Braithwaite A, Poulton R. (2003). Influence of life stress on depression: moderation by a polymorphism in the 5-HTT gene. Science, 301, 386-389.
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Suomi, S.J. (2011). Risk, resilience, and gene-environment interplay in primates. J. Can. Acad. Child. Adolesc. Psychiatry, 20, 289–297.
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