Today’s obituaries for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Sept. 18 at the age of 87 of complications from cancer, will inevitably and rightly describe her first and foremost as a Supreme Court Justice. Her distinguished legal career, however, began decades before her 1993 appointment to that bench.
Accordingly, her first appearance in the pages of TIME came decades earlier, in 1975, when she made the point that confusion and lack of understanding were the enemies of the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that would prohibit the denial of civil rights on the basis of gender.
It was a point very much in keeping with her career up to that moment. After her 1959 graduation from law school, she quickly discovered that being a woman meant she could not get a job at a top New York City law firm. So, she decided to go another route, clerking for a district court judge and later teaching at Rutgers. From the beginning, defending equality — especially gender equality — proved to be her forte, in the courtroom and in her life. And during the ERA’s moment in the headlines, after its passage in 1972, she was a staunch public voice for the Constitutional Amendment.
Though it would not be ratified, Ginsburg herself saw great success during this period, as TIME explained in a profile following her Supreme Court nomination:
Those successes were part of the reason her name was already being floated for the Supreme Court in the mid-1980s.
As her record showed, her early work toward greater equality was often founded on the knowledge — hard won in her own life and evident in the world around her — that the old stereotypes on which many past standards had been built no longer applied, and that life could be better once that fact was recognized. With that knowledge, brought to bear for her clients and later on the Supreme Court, she helped move American jurisprudence a little bit closer to what she saw as its true purpose.
That purpose was something she described to TIME in 1977, when she was named by the magazine as one of the nation’s top ten law professors: “To reflect and respond to the needs of the society it serves, preserving freedom while preventing turmoil.”