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Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s portrait is the first addition to State Capitol staircase in over a century

Gov. Kathy Hochul unveils a sculpted portrait of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg at the New York State Capitol's Great Western Staircase on Aug. 21, 2023.
Karen DeWitt
/
New York State Public Radio
Gov. Kathy Hochul unveils a sculpted portrait of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg at the New York State Capitol's Great Western Staircase on Aug. 21, 2023.

Earlier this month, Gov. Kathy Hochul unveiled a bust of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, immortalized in stone on the New York State Capitol’s historic Great Western Staircase.

The stone carving of Bader Ginsberg is the first sculpted portrait to be added to the ornate four-story, red sandstone staircase in 125 years.

With illumination from the skylights casting a pink glow on the intricate carvings of what’s also known as the Million Dollar Staircase, Hochul spoke on its steps during the unveiling ceremony.

“There were no women when the initial carvings were done,” Hochul said.

Carvings of six women were added when the Capitol was nearing completion in 1898. But Bader Ginsburg is the first woman to be enshrined in the upper-level section of the staircase galleries.

Hochul, who is New York’s first female governor, said Bader Ginsberg did not have an easy journey to the nation’s highest court. A Brooklyn native born to immigrant parents, Bader Ginsberg struggled to find employment after law schools. In 1960, she was turned down for a clerkship with the U.S. Supreme Court because of her gender.

Yet, the governor said, she persevered.

“By force of her intellect and toughness that we love, she achieved history,” Hochul said. “Not just to be the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States of America, but also the first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court.”

Hochul, who worked and raised children during her career as an attorney and local elected official, added that Bader-Ginsberg is also “a model for some of us who are raising kids while balancing careers.”

A sculpted portrait of the late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was added to the NYS Capitol's Great Western Staircase in August of 2023
Mike Groll
/
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
A sculpted portrait of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was added to the New York State Capitol's Great Western Staircase in August 2023.

One of Bader Ginsberg’s two children, Jane Ginsberg, now a professor at Columbia Law School, was also there. She said her family is honored by the portrait. And she credited the sculptor, Meredith Bergmann — known for her statue of suffragists Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in New York City’s Central Park — for accurately capturing one of her mother’s key style elements.

“Including the resolution of technically challenging issues,” Ginsberg quipped. “Such as which style of eyeglasses and how to represent them.”

Bader Ginsberg is depicted in the sculpture with her trademark owl-like spectacles.

Bader Ginsberg joins numerous other famous Americans depicted on the staircase, including Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Likenesses of the first 30 New York governors are also carved into the sandstone, as well as numerous flora, fauna and other symbols.

Hochul said placing Bader Ginsberg’s portrait in a prominent position sends an important message.

“To have her in a place where women could walk down and pause for a moment. And children can see and ask the questions like, ‘Why is she there? Who is this woman who did something so extraordinary that her image is emblazoned on this sandstone here in our Capitol?” Hochul said.

The six other women who are portrayed are Revolutionary War soldier Molly Pitcher, abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe, Civil War nurses Clara Barton and Elmina Spencer, temperance crusader Frances Willard, and women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony.

The state Capitol building is open to the public during normal business hours. Tours are offered at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.