Thank You, Ruth; I Am, Because You Were
I would like to write a thorough and scholarly tribute that touches on some of her most influential opinions or noteworthy dissents, highlighting the legal brilliance for which she deserves to be remembered. But it feels wrong to focus on that, because of the inherent politics that, for some, would detract from recognition of the extraordinary human being she was.
I was out walking when I learned the news. It was the first cool evening of the last gasp of summer, and it was beautiful out. I was lost in my audiobook and the serenity of fresh air and solitude. It had been a rough week, in a rough year that keeps getting worse, but it was a welcomed peaceful moment. And then a text came from my friend: “Reports say Ginsburg’s dead. Jesus.” I stopped in my tracks as though I’d hit an invisible wall. I checked twitter; the first tweet I saw confirming the story was from Jake Tapper, leading me to the conclusion that it was not a rumor. I stood in the street, taken by surprise by the tears welling up.
I’m sure it is a surprise to no one that I’m a fan of RBG; most liberal women are, with the exception of some seriously hard-core socialists who find her insufficiently radical. But I don’t own an RBG T-shirt, or a bobble head, or a necklace modeled after her famous “dissent collar.” And yet there I was, in the middle of the road crying because a woman I have never met died.
It was not, as some cynically suspect, because I was filled with sudden panic over the loss of a SCOTUS seat that favors “my side.” My thoughts did not go to the consequences of a conservative-leaning court, or dire political circumstances. I had a vague recognition that the news portended an escalation in the battle of public discourse, but that was not what hurt. It was just that my hero was gone.
Ruth and I did not have a lot in common, I suppose. A girl from small-town West Virginia (which is all of West Virginia) does not share much in the way of root experiences with a Jewish woman who grew up in Brooklyn two generations back. We are both women in a traditionally male-dominated profession, yes, but by the time I went to law school, my path was immeasurably easier than Ruth’s was, and that is because of women like her. I wonder if I would have had the nerve, let alone the confidence, to walk into a classroom full of men in that day and age and take my seat as if I belonged there, knowing that I was a mostly unwelcome oddity.
But she did, and because she did, I didn’t have to. When I walked into my first law school class, it was fairly evenly split between men and women; in fact, female law students now outnumber the men. Women lawyers are not a novelty anymore. And while I could tell stories about the Men Who Time Forgot who have still managed to treat me like support staff, the truth is I faced no obstacles in becoming a lawyer beyond my own innate ability to do so.
All the ways in which inequality still vexes women are a product of human bias, not legal, and Ruth is owed a lot of gratitude for her work in getting us to this point. Her work in the 1970s to make the very court on which she would one day take a seat recognize the rights of women is nothing short of genius. While she did represent women, she knew that to make the courts take sex discrimination seriously and see it as violative rather than protective, she would have to make them feel it. To that end, Ruth took on cases in which men were the victims of sex discrimination. She fought for the right of a male military spouse to receive spousal benefits through his wife. She submitted an amicus brief in a case challenging liquor laws in the state of Oklahoma, which allowed women to legally buy and consume alcohol at a younger age than men, and the Court’s ultimate ruling in that case established a higher standard of review for sex discrimination cases: intermediate scrutiny.
Lawyers take the cases that come to them, and it is not always for the furtherance of a cause any greater than their client’s interest. But equality was a higher cause for Ruth. Her mother, Celia, was a very intelligent woman who graduated from high school at the age of 15. She could have gone to college; instead, she went to work in a factory so that her brother could attend Cornell.
On the day President Clinton announced Ruth’s nomination to be the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court, her mother’s sacrifice was on her mind:
“I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons.”
Despite our differing backgrounds and the fact that Ruth has forgotten more legal knowledge than I am ever likely to possess, I nevertheless see enough similarity for her to be an affirming hero for me. Not many of my classmates were the children of minimum wage earners living below -or scraping against- the poverty line, but I was, and Ruth’s family was also not well off. We were both first-generation law students. She came from a place in which she was not expected to do with her life what she did; so did I, for different reasons. In that way, Ruth’s story was an encouragement to me in wondering whether I was law school material. I am no Ruth Bader Ginsburg; I will never be a judge, let alone a justice. But I do identify with her ambition, her life choices, her fight.
Ruth was not a woman so driven by her career and achievement that she forewent a family; she married her college sweetheart and stayed married to him until his death in 2010. They had two children. She was as dedicated a wife and mother as she was a lawyer; she did not give up any one role in order to take on another, and yet reached the pinnacle of her career. It is encouragement to others, like me, who wonder if juggling too much inevitably means something will fall.
Ruth’s strength against challenge was nothing short of amazing. She worked while pregnant, went to law school while caring for a husband with cancer and their baby, and still graduated first in her class. She worked through her own bouts with cancer, with broken ribs, days after surgery. She seemed unstoppable. Even when the end became inevitably close, her tenacity made it hard to believe the day would actually come.
The reaction to her passing has been strong, even in an age in which every reaction to every politically relevant headline is strong. To many, she represented the glue holding liberal hopes together, and her death means doom. Others were simply saddened by the loss of a woman with an amazing life and a remarkable career. Some were ugly, their remarks ranging from schadenfreude of the grief of “the left” to good riddance to immediately strategizing how to replace her or defeat her proposed replacement. Some resorted to the oft-repeated criticism that Ruth was selfish for not retiring when Obama could have chosen her successor. Some couched their criticism as concern: “poor thing; she should have been allowed to retire and enjoy the last years of her life!”
As if Ruth Bader Ginsberg has ever been made to do anything in her life that she didn’t want to do.
She felt she could still do the job- and she did, right up to the very end of the spring term. Though her age, stooped form and frailty was often mocked, no one who worked closely with her has ever suggested her mind had dulled. She owed it to no one to step down. And believe it or not, it is very possible that politics were not her number one concern.
Despite her stature as an icon of liberal ideology, she was not so blinded by her convictions that she saw opposition as her enemy. She embodied respect and civility. Politically, she was as far from Antonin Scalia as she could get, and yet she shared a close friendship with her “Nino” for her many years on the Court. She’s been amiable with all of her fellow justices, including new conservative appointees Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. This does not diminish her importance to liberal ideals; after her 50+ years of fighting to uphold the constitutional rights of women and others, no one can legitimately doubt her place as a hero of the left. It would behoove those who admire her to take notice of her ability to be friends with and care about people who disagree with even the most sacred of her beliefs. As a person who also counts many ideological opposites among those dearest to me, her ability to rise above partisanship in her personal relationships is an inspiration.
I’ve spent almost 1700 words now trying to put into paragraphs why RBG meant so much to me. While I agreed with her politics, it isn’t the loss of her allyship on the Court that brought me to tears. I’m of the unpopular opinion that most justices, once they secure that lifetime appointment, give up a lot of their political motivations and apply the law. (I said most. There are glaring exceptions.) It is not the loss of the seat that hurts; it is the loss of her genius, her fortitude, her genuineness and her grace.
I was almost finished with my walk when I was halted by the terrible news. I was aiming for two miles; I was close to my house but needed another trip around the block to get reach my goal. I wanted to cut it short and head for home. The calm and peace and clear-headedness brought on by the fresh air and exercise had eluded me. Ruth wouldn’t have quit, though. She definitely would not have stood crying in the street and given up so close to the finish, so I didn’t either.
Children generally don’t know the names of Supreme Court Justices, and generally they have no reason to. But thanks to the cultural zeitgeist, little girls everywhere know RBG. I hope they are inspired to be like her: courageous, dignified, tenacious, and limitless in their ambition.