Last Friday, the 18th of September, the world lost a force of nature. Ruth Bader Ginsberg (a/k/a RBG) was murdered (and I mean that literally) by metastatic pancreatic cancer, after a long and illustrious career, after dealing with cancer multiple times and working through it, after leaving her indelible mark on the world. She left requests and a rich legacy of careful actions, careful words, and careful speech.
Some of my favorite quotes:
About Women on the Supreme Court: “When I’m sometimes asked ‘When will there be enough (women on the Supreme Court)?’ and my answer is: ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”
About men on the Supreme Court: “They have never been a 13-year-old girl.” — After her male colleagues appeared indifferent about a girl’s strip-search by school administrators
About being a Woman: “My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.”
About Gender Equality: “Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.”
On Leadership: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
On Dissent and Justice: “Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”
About Abortion: “This is something central to a woman’s life, to her dignity. It’s a decision that she must make for herself. And when government controls that decision for her, she’s being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”
About her Legacy: “We are at last beginning to relegate to the history books the idea of the token woman.” and About her legacy, she said, “To make life a little better for people less fortunate than you, that’s what I think a meaningful life is. One lives not just for oneself but for one’s community.”
My husband and I were eating when his phone buzzed with a notification. He looked up at me and, from the look on his face, I knew it was bad. When he said “Justice Ginsberg died,” it took my brain way too long to assimilate the news.
Justice Ginsberg died.
She died after living a life of service to others, after pursuing equality in the best way she knew how, and after never, ever, giving up. Even as she was declining, she is said to have dictated to her granddaughter that:
“My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
I have heard some commentators casting doubt on this report, but as many fans of RBG have said, it certainly sounds like something she would have said since she had refused to resign more than once because of her desire to have her successor be someone more aligned in her ideology than not. While the Supreme Court does not participate politically generally, I believe different Justices have been more aware of their affect politically than others. Justice Ginsberg appeared to have appreciated her larger role in a careful and measured way, as was her style.
As a woman who has been a lawyer for approximately eighteen (18) years, Justice Ginsberg showed me what a determined woman can do, especially a determined woman with a law degree. She demonstrated with her life, not just her words, that women can and should be an active participant in their lives and in the world. She emulated a way of being a part of the world of men without making compromises and creating friends out of adversaries. Justice Ginsberg gave professional women an example of how a partnership works and how the roles and responsibilities within a marriage ebb and flow.
In the previous generations of women in my family, I’ve been blessed to have many examples of how a woman might not fit the mold. My maternal grandmother went to college, taking off semesters to work as a secretary to earn the money to pay her tuition. My paternal grandmother managed apartment complexes that were populated by those receiving government assistance, without ever having gone to college. My mother graduated from college, obtained and maintained her license to practice physical therapy through moves all over the country following my father’s career, and worked amidst raising and homeschooling me and all my siblings.
Many women don’t have these personal examples and while Justice Ginsberg gave me a specific example of how I could use my law degree, to others, she was the only (or one of the only) female role model they might see. There’s no question that having role models, especially role models that look like you, is extremely significant in one’s development, goal setting, and achievements. For women, role models show us that we don’t have to accept the status quo, that we don’t have to remain in the role society might proscribe for us, that we can reach for more if we want it.
I am incredibly sad that we won’t get to read another dissent, see Justice Ginsberg’s modest smile, see her small black-robed form amongst the tall and larger male Justices, get to learn at her feet so to speak, or see an issue through her learned eyes. It’s not just women or the Supreme Court or the United States who will be affected, it’s literally the world.
One person has had that affect.
One diminutive, soft spoken woman has changed the way we look at equality.
One woman who used her brain and her training to make the world better for everyone.
And that’s what I will take away from the life and work of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. We can, each of us, change the world in our own way. We can, each of us, make a difference in others’ lives. We can, each of us, leave a legacy for others to follow. We can, each of us, leave a trail for others to follow. We can, each of us, write our own story in the way that we want it to go.
Yehi zichra baruch, which means “may her memory be for a blessing.”