First of three articles

The riddle of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Clinton's nominee to the Supreme Court, is this:

How do you square the staid, quiet, achingly precise legal scholar and judge with the cutting-edge crusader of the 1970s campaign for gender-blind justice?

As a lawyer, Ginsburg, now 60, earned a place in any feminist Hall of Fame, winning five of the six cases she presented to the Supreme Court and in the process erasing many of the distinctions between men and women drawn by the law. As a judge, she has leveled critiques of that feminist landmark, Roe v. Wade, saying the abortion decision reached too far and was founded on the wrong constitutional principle.

Appointed by Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980 to the politically polarized Circuit Court of Appeals for D.C., she frequently joined the opinions of such leading lights of Republican conservatism as then-court colleagues Robert H. Bork and Antonin Scalia, now a Supreme Court justice.

In short, the Ginsburg personality is an unusual blend of right and left, tradition and revolution -- as America will see when she begins her confirmation hearings Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Where does she come from, this unfamiliar character? From the streets of Depression and war-era Brooklyn, where education was the way up through a system that made sense and mattered. From tragedy: the early deaths of an older sister and a formative mother; the near-death of a husband. From a mind that grasped and loved the law. From competitive urges, and success. From a man's world that scarcely welcomed a woman.

Against odds, Ruth Ginsburg chipped at the edges of convention in a time when the edges were beginning to crumble. Eventually, she broke through the barrier, and a shaft of radical light fell into her familiar world. She became her own sort of revolutionary: believing so much in traditions that she wanted to open them up, allowing men into the old roles of women, and women into the roles of men. She found an idiosyncratic middle.

Even friends have a hard time describing it. "She's conventional socially and politically and in every way, except for her intellect," attorney Melvin Wulf said one recent afternoon.

"Yeah, but Mel," countered Kathleen Peratis Frank, another former Ginsburg associate, "you have to admit it was pretty unconventional in those days for a woman to raise a family, hold a job, go to law school."

"I'll say this," Wulf ventured again. "She is by no means a bomb-thrower."

Again Frank parried: "But the things she achieved were bombshells."

Her old friends agreed on one thing:

"Years ago," said Frank, "I named my first daughter Ruth, after her. And when my Ruth was old enough to understand, I told her that the woman she was named after would someday be on the Supreme Court."

Childhood Was Marked By 'the Smell of Death'

She grew up, she has sometimes said, "with the smell of death." Born Joan Ruth Bader on March 15, 1933, she was the second daughter of Nathan and Celia Bader, but by the time she started school, her older sister was dead, and as far as the neighborhood children knew, she was an only child.

It was a Brooklyn neighborhood of storybook upward-bound immigrants, on the cusp between Depression and success. Jews mixed with Irish mixed with Italians. To buy the best bread, everyone knew enough Italian to deal with Ralph Luca's parents at the corner bakery. In these families, the parents endured and made simple middle-class homes. The children were meant to grab the sky.

"We were children of immigrants, or the next generation. For our parents, the thing was to have a job, to have money to put food on the table," Richard Salzman recalls. "For us, their children, the emphasis was on being somebody: My son the doctor, the lawyer. The girls were supposed to marry doctors or lawyers." Now a D.C. Superior Court judge, Salzman lived on the next block from Ruth Bader in those days.

Yet something slightly, crucially, different was taught at the Bader household on East Ninth Street. Shy Nathan Bader struggled selling furs, then haberdashery. Celia Bader was the dominant force, outgoing and smart, always reading. When she was a girl, rapt in a book while walking, Celia stumbled into a sidewalk storage cellar and broke her nose. Celia graduated from high school at 15, but she could not go to college; instead, she worked to put her oldest brother through Cornell.

Celia Bader taught her daughter Ruth -- called Kiki -- to be independent, and saved pin money for her daughter's future tuition.

The daughter was precociously serious and a great believer in the American way. Salzman recalls that, as editor of a mimeographed school paper, Ruth wrote an editorial at 12 or 13 on the "Landmarks of Constitutional Freedom," tracing the foundations of American law from Magna Carta onward. She graduated first in her class at P.S. 238 and was confirmed at East Midwood Jewish Center with "high honors." She headed to James Madison High School, where almost everyone went to college, and the best went to the Ivy League.

"She was a very beautiful young woman," Joan Danoff, a childhood friend, recalls. "Big blue eyes and light brown hair. She was lovely, really, to look at." At Madison, Ruth was popular enough to be chosen for the twirling squad, and smart enough to pass the grueling interviews that juniors endured to get into Arista, the elite honor society. She played cello in the school orchestra, and proudly wore the black satin jacket of the Go-Getters, the booster group in charge of drumming up crowds for Madison's impressive sports teams.

Some classmates remember her as annoyingly competitive, too aggressive by half. "Pushy," even, said one. To Salzman, "She was popular, personable, serious. She belonged to all the right groups. She studied without giving the impression of studying."

Ruth Bader was not the most glamorous student at Madison High; that would be Rita Kriegel or Robert Sinacore. She did not have the best grades. That was math whiz Anthony Spano. The forecast in the senior yearbook predicted a future Supreme Court justice: a boy named Joel Sheinbaum.

But she was tough. For as she smiled and flogged tickets to the big football game, Ruth Bader had a secret few of her classmates knew. Her mother -- the great force in her life -- was dying of cancer through Ruth's high school years, declining steadily as graduation day approached.

Sixth in her class (her best subject was English), she was scheduled to take part in the "Forum of Honor" at graduation. But the day before the ceremony, Celia Bader died. Ruth did not attend.

When her estate was calculated, Celia Bader had managed to leave $8,000, a remarkable sum for the time and circumstances, in tiny Brooklyn bank accounts for her daughter's education.

Ruth Bader, however, had learned independence. She had scholarships; she did not need the money, and gave most of it to her dad.

A Serious Relationship Grows From Convenient Pairing

She enrolled at Cornell, a giant place far up in the New York countryside. Arriving at the dormitory, she was disturbed to find herself assigned to a section exclusively filled with Jewish girls from New York City -- though another of the girls, Irma Hilton, believes it was Cornell's way of making them feel at home.

Classmates recall that the great sin at Cornell, especially for women, was to look serious. For Ruth Bader, this was a terrific challenge. So she pursued her studies with stealthy organization, compressing her careful notes to index cards and memorizing them. She discovered a comfortable bathroom where she could study late without being seen.

The image her friends hold is of Ruth sitting cross-legged, reading, while they played bridge or gossiped nearby. She loved horseback riding and the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, sometimes playing selections on the piano.

"As opposed to this picture of a dour personality we've been seeing, she was actually a lot of fun," according to Hilton. "It was just that she had her priorities straight: She never partied until her work was done."

Those were different times, conventional. Curfew was 10:30 p.m. on school nights, and students dressed for dinner in their single-sex dorms. No one could leave the table until the last diner was finished, and the last was often Ruth Bader, a tedious eater.

"We'd be sitting at that table waiting for her to finish, all the while worrying that the boys were trying to call us for dates," says Hilton, now a psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York.

As it happened, Hilton dated a boy named Mark Franklin who had a fraternity roommate named Marty Ginsburg, the clever, confident, happy-go-lucky son of a prosperous department store executive from Long Island. Ginsburg was a dashing sophomore, star of the golf team and owner of a gray Chevrolet. Irma and Mark set up a blind date.

Soon Irma and Mark, Marty and Ruth were dating and studying together regularly. It was a convenient arrangement: Marty had a girlfriend back home, and Ruth had a boyfriend from camp. They were pals, going to movies and drinking beer together. Sunday evenings they often went out for dinner, and the boys always paid.

They were not very political, though Marty recalls idly enjoying Adlai Stevenson's campaign speeches in 1952. The world seemed far away. When Cornell zoology professor Marcus Singer was attacked as a communist sympathizer, they were outraged. A government professor who stood up to McCarthyism, Robert Cushman, was the one they admired.

But what Ruth Bader enjoyed, more than the hurly-burly of politics, was the grand design of government. The Big Idea. In the spring of her junior year, she took a course in constitutional law -- subject of her grade-school editorial -- and burned straight through the class. She took instinctively to the lovely confusions and artful tensions of checked-and-balanced government.

Meanwhile the convenient arrangement of Ruth Bader and Marty Ginsburg became something much more. Though they came from different social backgrounds, they found they thought about and cared about so many of the same things. Marty has said he found Ruth intriguing, easy to talk to about almost anything. He wasn't used to that.

At home, Nathan Bader encouraged his daughter to take the safe route for a young woman: Marry and become a schoolteacher until she had children of her own. Instead, Ruth and Marty made a list of careers they could share; they wanted always to speak the same language. One by one, they eliminated the possibilities, until only the law remained.

Marty enrolled at Harvard Law School while Ruth completed her senior year. His draft notice came mid-year. In 1954, after Ruth Bader graduated first in her class, they were married -- two bright kids picturing a modern life.

They were posted to Fort Sill, in Lawton, Okla., a world away from New York.

Civil Service Delivers One of Earliest Employment Slights

What opportunities awaited an Ivy League valedictorian in Lawton? If she happened to be a woman, there was a job at the troop supply depot, counting nuts, bolts and widgets from 8 to 4.

Hoping for more challenging employment, Ruth took the civil service exam and was rated for a GS-5 job. The Social Security office in Lawton had a position. Things were fine until Ruth mentioned she was pregnant.

Well then, said the boss, she could not go to Baltimore for training. Ginsburg would have to settle for a GS-2 typist job. Another woman, also pregnant, concealed the fact and got the better post. There was a lesson there, Ginsburg figured, about candor from a woman.

Yet the prejudice she saw most clearly in Lawton was not prejudice against women. Native Americans had a hard time getting Social Security. Ginsburg's colleagues would insist on seeing birth certificates from applicants born at a time when Indian births were not considered worth documenting. It did not seem fair, Ginsburg later recalled thinking. She quietly filled out the forms on the strength of driver's licenses, hunting permits and so forth.

Ruth and Marty passed their evenings on the Oklahoma prairie reading aloud to one another from Pepys's diaries and Spinoza's philosophy. They studied accounting by mail. Marty did the cooking, and the two shared baby duty, caring for daughter Jane. Others may have found their marriage odd; to them, it was an adventure. Marty took the 2 a.m. feeding. He had a theory that playing classical music while Jane took her bottle would turn her into a cultured adult. Ruth was happy to let him try it while she slept.

In 1956, when Marty's hitch was up, they headed back to Harvard.

Harvard's 'Paper Chase' Was Fraught With Cuts for Women

Harvard Law School of those days is not remembered as a welcoming place: It was the era of The Paper Chase, imposing professors grilling students in an ungentle pastiche of the Socratic Method. The nine women of Ruth Ginsburg's class found it especially cold. At a reception hosted by the great dean Erwin Griswold, they were pointedly asked how they felt about holding places that could have gone to qualified men.

Qualifications were not the question. Ginsburg won top grades and a place on the Law Review. But at home, she again smelled death. Marty developed testicular cancer, and began a radical course of radiation and cutting. Massive surgery suggested the cancer had spread to several lymph nodes. No one, Marty was told, had ever survived such a diagnosis.

Still, with a preschool daughter and a grievously ill husband to care for, she conquered Harvard Law. Ginsburg took notes in Marty's classes and typed the papers as he dictated. Ruth would be at her desk when her family went to bed, and when they awoke the next morning she would still be there, the lamplight fading into the dawn.

Marty recovered, miraculously, and landed a good job with a New York firm. "We wished to remain together as a family unit," Ruth Ginsburg has written, so she enrolled at Columbia Law School, though she was uncertain whether she could get a degree on the strength of only one year. She met her old friend Richard Salzman heading into class one day, and he remembers thinking, "God, it's Ruth, and she's gonna be first again."

"And she was," Salzman says.

At Columbia, Ginsburg signed up for Herbert Wexler's noontime seminar in federal courts and the federal system, a grueling course in which Wexler would pose long, complicated, multi-part questions. Ginsburg would pause a moment (she seems to love silences) before delivering a long, complicated multi-part answer. Then, like a coda, she would add a polite mention of factors Wexler had left out.

She made law review at another Ivy League school -- a nearly unprecedented accomplishment -- but could not get a job at any top Manhattan firm. Nor could she get an interview for a Supreme Court clerkship. "A woman, a mother and a Jew -- the kiss of death," one friend sums up. Eventually, Ginsburg was matched with U.S. District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri, a free-thinking jurist with a penchant for hiring clerks with unusual life experiences. Twenty years later, Palmieri would rate Ginsburg among the three best clerks he ever had.

When her time with the judge was over, after Palmieri assured one firm's partners that "she even shows up on weekends," she got a job offer. But then Ginsburg heard from Hans Smit, a Columbia professor. The Carnegie Foundation had established a grant to study legal systems in France, Italy and Sweden. Finding scholars to study France and Italy was simple; Sweden was another matter. Would Ginsburg care to take on the project?

Ginsburg was not even sure where Sweden was relative to, say, Norway. But she was intrigued. It was a chance to write a book, which greatly appealed to her, and what's more, it was another adventure. She had never lived completely alone, and the project offered a chance at six solitary weeks in Lund and Stockholm before her daughter would join her. Columbia provided a language tutor -- a former dancer in the Swedish ballet whom Ginsburg pumped for ballet gossip.

And still, she was nothing she would call feminist. That came next.

In Stockholm, Ginsburg picked up rustlings. During her stay, an American woman from Arizona, Sherri Finkbine, made headlines by traveling to Sweden's capital to have an abortion. Finkbein had taken thalidomide and was worried about the likelihood of severe birth defects. About the same time, a newspaper columnist named Eva Moberg jolted Swedish society with an essay asking why women should have two jobs -- work and family -- while men had only one. Every cocktail party in the country, it seemed, was consumed with talk of the plight of Moberg's "Supermoms."

Was she a Supermom? "No," she has said. Her marriage was uncommonly balanced. "As students we were ideally situated to share duties. Marty threw himself into the first years of child raising, and he did the cooking. We shared everything."

But new questions were in the air, and she was receptive. Ginsburg co-wrote two books on Swedish law. The University of Lund, grateful for the exposure to the English-speaking world, awarded her an honorary degree, complete with a distinctive top hat that Ginsburg still wears, smiling wryly, whenever she attends academic ceremonies.

Even today, as she prepares for the Supreme Court, Ginsburg spends her spare time translating the Swedish Code of Criminal Procedure into English. She has finished 31 of the 59 chapters.

Skirting the Pregnancy Issue While Teaching at Rutgers

The rest of the awakening came later in the 1960s, as it often did in those days. Ginsburg always loved the idea of the law, so there was a sort of inevitability to it when she became a teacher, the second woman on the Rutgers law faculty, one of the first 20 women to teach in any American law school.

She taught conventional subjects: constitutional law and the ultra-scholarly "conflict of laws." In the classroom, Ginsburg was a dry and serious lecturer, an acquired taste. "She gave lectures almost exclusively in the old European style," says William Hodes, one of Ginsburg's best students at Rutgers, now a professor at Indiana University's law school in Indianapolis. "I loved to hear her think out loud, almost as if she was having a conversation with the author of the text.

"But," Hodes adds, "I believe some of the other students found her somewhat dry. I remember the word 'schoolmarmish.' She was very meticulous, very careful, very serious about getting everything right."

Pregnant again -- another miracle, after Marty's disease -- she remembered the lesson she learned in Oklahoma. No tenure, so she borrowed her mother-in-law's baggier clothes to hide her condition. James was born without defect; she has called it "the happiest day of her life."

In a rush:

Ginsburg discovered discrimination around her. Rutgers was, for undergraduates, an all-male school; she took on a lawsuit on behalf of a campus gardener whose son had gotten a tuition waiver but whose daughter could not get into Rutgers' smaller sister school. Another case involved New Jersey schoolgirls barred from Princeton's 6th-grade preparatory program. She joined the New Jersey ACLU, and -- as the only woman on staff -- dealt with cases of female schoolteachers who lost their jobs because they became pregnant.

She read Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex," a feminist classic that peeled scales from her eyes. The book was "overwhelming, staggering," she later recalled. A group of students asked her to teach a class in feminist law, and she discovered how little there was. A widely used textbook in property law, she was shocked to discover, declared that "land, like woman, was meant to be possessed."

At home, life with Marty was, suddenly, less balanced than before. As he built his lucrative tax law practice, Martin Ginsburg became something more like the husbands with whom most women lived. In 1969, Ruth said to him, "Your son is now 4 years old and you've never taken him to the park."

Everything clicked. The shaft of radicalism from the society beyond pierced the web of conventionality in Ruth Ginsburg's life, and met her own experience. Revolution and convention merged.

The stage was set for her campaign to change the law.

Staff writer Jay Mathews in New York and researcher Ann O'Hanlon contributed to this report.

NEXT: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's campaign