Ruth Bader Ginsburg was 87 years old when she passed away on Friday night. If you were keeping cosmic score, it was the Jewish New Year and a day for hope and new beginnings.
In a world that won’t cast 50-year-old women in films, Justice Ginsburg managed to be an aspiration for the soccer moms and also the middle schoolers and, yes, the toddlers who dressed in tiny glasses and oversized collars for Halloween. She was the most improbable icon sprung from the unlikeliest branch of government—a dork’s dork, seated for decades on a court that permits neither cameras nor tape recorders. She was conservative to the point of being maddening; she welcomed Brett Kavanaugh to the bench after confirmation hearings that eviscerated half the women in the country. She was opposed to structural court reform, even if it meant protecting Mitch McConnell’s outsized hand in preserving minority rule. She didn’t understand Colin Kaepernick and why he was kneeling. And yet, perhaps more than anyone else in America, she became the woman we all wanted to be.
A few months ago, I had the greatest joy of my two-decade career: an opportunity to interview the notorious one herself, at the court, shortly before lockdown closed its doors. The project was about her Harvard Law School classmates, and what it was like to be one of the first women to attend that law school and the barriers faced by anyone who wasn’t a white male. Throughout our hour together, I was asking the questions, but the justice’s eyes weren’t focused on me. Not really. Instead, she was frequently looking at our twentysomething staffer, Molly Olmstead, who had done the bulk of the research on the project and had come to know this Harvard class like it was her own. You couldn’t miss it; none of us in the room missed it. The Gen Xers were fine, sure, but it was the young woman to whom Ruth Bader Ginsburg directed herself. Always. She loved being an icon and a rock chick and a heroine and a tote bag, not because she loved the adulation—it was not her hardworking and quiet disposition to love something that came so late in her life, and sat uneasily on her serious shoulders. But she loved it because she loved the idea that suddenly young people were reading her dissents, setting them to music, comparing her to rappers, and ingesting her into their cultural DNA. For as long as I watched her, she was, in turn, watching the generations that came after me. Because she always genuinely believed that they would finish the work she had started.
Whenever she spoke, Justice Ginsburg was at pains to say that she stood on the shoulders of giants. At her confirmation hearings, in her prepared statement to the Senate, she was meticulous about who truly deserved the credit for her landmark career, and it wasn’t RBG: “We could not have come to this point—and I surely would not be in this room today—without the determined efforts of men and women who kept dreams of equal citizenship alive in days when few would listen. People like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Harriet Tubman come to mind. I stand on the shoulders of those brave people.” I never heard her give a public speech in which she didn’t thank, by name, the allies, champions, fighters, of whom she inevitably saw herself as a beneficiary; she cast herself as someone lucky enough to be in a long line of champions and fighters, and also as someone set and determined to pay it forward to the people who would someday stand on her shoulders. She was a link in a chain, albeit a link lucky enough to score a crown when she was old enough to collect Social Security.
Justice Ginsburg was reserved and cautious and careful with her words, but I also think she never truly wanted her career and the progress for which she toiled, day in and day out, sleeplessly and through illness, to be just her own. Maybe it was because she was almost always a part of some bigger entity—an ACLU project, a law school class, a court, another court. She talked about soloists a lot, but she didn’t do a lot of solos. Instead, she saw herself as part of something bigger, something that started with her mother’s passions, and the help of her professors and boosters and friends. And of course, she knew that she lived as the repository of her beloved husband Marty’s hopes for a better future, and his endless efforts to do what he could to make it so. The world they envisioned was one that might be created thanks to the work we have all done, the marches we have marched, the fights we have fought, the protests we have protested. It was always a collective effort. And every time a door closed, or a clerkship was declined, or an all-male court found her to be weirdly female—whatever team she was on, she hunkered down and regrouped and pushed forward again.
Justice Ginsburg’s personal fame—the bedazzling fandom that suddenly sprung up around her—was improbable because to her, it was always about the people who paved the way, and the people who would follow after. I think perhaps she got a kick out of the idea that the young ones who came after might be moved and inspired and lit up by her stardom and her integrity and her grit, that they might go to law school or sign a petition or go on a march thanks to her. And while the loss of Justice Ginsburg is gutting and lacerating and brutally sad, her entire life and work has been in service to the idea that the rest of us are in fact capable of being allies and helpers and boosters and supporters, and also that the generations that are disconsolate tonight, for the lack of a hero, are themselves capable of stepping into her teeny-tiny, mighty, 3-inch-heeled, terrifyingly fabulous shoes and taking up the work she didn’t begin but merely inherited from those who came before.
America has lost a warrior, and it’s OK to be crushed. I am flattened. And I will mourn, because she deserves to be mourned. But we are also facing an almighty battle that will rage in the coming weeks, with attempts to fill her seat in an unseemly and grotesque manner. It will be hard and painful, but if you find yourself feeling hopeless and powerless, then you are emphatically doing it wrong. Because if anyone had a right to say “nah,” it was the woman who couldn’t get a job or a clerkship after graduating at the top of her class. But she pushed on, and then she pushed forward. She stepped into the fight of the phenomenal women who paved the path before, and now, well, it’s time to step into her fight and get it finished. I think the Notorious RBG would have peered owlishly out at all of us tonight and asked what the heck we are waiting for. And I think we can probably honor her best by getting to it.
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