Ruth Bader Ginsburg is remembered for her devotion to justice, her love of family, and her impact on the lives of millions in this week's issue of PEOPLE

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Sam Gillette
September 22, 2020 09:00 AM
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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may have only stood five-feet tall, but she was one of the fiercest fighters for equal rights. And that fierceness persisted even in the days before her death.

In this week's PEOPLE cover story, longtime friend and neighbor Sanford Greenberg says that Ginsburg "was making plans to live" just two weeks before she died on Friday at the age of 87.

In early September, Ginsburg returned from the hospital after fighting an infection. In the last years of her life, Ginsburg was in and out of the hospital for various health concerns. She died due to complications from a recurrence of the pancreatic cancer she had improbably beaten 11 years earlier.

Ginsburg called Greenberg to prepare for a speech she promised to record for his upcoming End Blindness by 20/20 awards ceremony.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
| Credit: Sebastian Kim/M+A World/AUGUST

“She was preparing for the Court’s next term and swamped,” says Greenberg, 79, “but it was vintage Ruth— ‘Straight ahead. We’re going to get this done.’ She was making plans to live.”

Ginsburg's hope was to keep fighting until after the presidential election in November.

It was her foremost desire to prevent President Donald Trump from appointing a conservative to her vacancy. She made this wish clear in some of her last words, written down by her granddaughter Clara Spera.

"The last day that Ruth could really talk, she dictated to Clara, 'My most fervent wish is that I not be replaced until a new president is installed,' " says Ginsburg’s longtime journalist friend Nina Totenberg.

The trailblazer, who rose to pop culture fame late in life as "The Notorious RBG," is celebrated in PEOPLE's cover story for her historic gains in the fight for equality for all. She's also remembered as a loving friend and grandmother, who spent her last months surrounded by family and working with the same passion that guided her decades-long career.

"Our nation has lost a jurist of historic stature," said conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, while Justice Sonia Sotomayor saluted the everyday ways her liberal sister's body of work —not just gender equality, but marriage equality, voting rights, rights for immigrants and people with disabilities — made an impact: "Ruth lived a profoundly meaningful life, and the numerous ways in which she changed ours will never be forgotten."

Ginsburg's life can be summed up in one word: perseverance. The women's rights icon lost her mother when she was just 17 years old, but she pushed on and attended Cornell University, where she met Martin Ginsburg, her husband of 56 years until his death in 2010.

Together they went to Harvard Law School. Ginsburg, then a mother to her infant daughter, Jane, was one of nine women in a class of 522. In her second year, she helped Marty in his battle with testicular cancer. (Together they also raised a son, James.)

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Despite graduating at the top of her class, Ginsburg couldn't find a job because firms didn't hire women lawyers. Instead, she taught law while volunteering as a litigator for the ACLU, where, in the 1970s, she took on cases — five of which she won at the Supreme Court — that led the courts, step by step, to the conclusion that laws treating men and women differently were unconstitutional.

"She was so focused on making a case that would win over courts but also eventually win over the public," former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a young lawyer at the time, says now.

For more on Ruth Bader Ginsburg's life and legacy, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE.

Ginsburg's belief that change would only be complete with public support is part of the reason she celebrated her icon status when she gained "The Notorious RBG" nickname in 2013.

She was "very aware that she was paving the way for a new generation to take on the mantle and move forward," says her former clerk Paul Schiff.

In the last months of her life, Ginsburg continued to work hard to secure a future for the young girls who love to parade around in RBG Halloween costumes. Quarantining at home, with a face mask featuring her “RBG” likeness and a rotating crew of children and grandchildren, she would work on her patio, drinking chicken soup made by Greenberg’s wife Sue.

"Ruth didn’t think of it as work," says Greenberg. "She always said, this is the most joyous thing I could do."

-With reporting by Diane Herbst and Michelle Tauber