When we lost Ruth Bader Ginsberg on Friday night, I felt a deep, echoing sadness, the origin of which was at first hard to pinpoint.
Partially, it came from a feeling of loss, since a figure I respected, no, revered, had passed away. Of course, she had lived a long life of 87 years, had accomplished more than most could ever hope to, had died surrounded by a loving family, but still, it felt too soon. I had convinced myself she was immortal in a way, that her famous work-out routine would keep her going into her hundreds. Probably because I didn’t want to envision a court without her.
Even more sadness came when I considered that court without her, and what that court would become now that she was gone and her space was left to be filled by our idiotic president and his senate full of lackeys. To replace someone who had stood for so much, with someone who will stand for everything she resented, is unbelievably appalling.
What saddened me the most acutely though, I discovered, was that in her final moments, in this American hero’s last moments she wasn’t just reflecting on the incredible work she had done for women across the country, she wasn’t at peace, she was worrying to the point that she dictated to her granddaughter, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
In that statement you can feel so much of the burden that Ruth was holding onto when she died. Fears, misplaced guilt, anger, and hopelessness. All emotions that a woman like her, who changed so much for others should have been able to do without on her deathbed.
This is the woman who ensured that other women could open their own bank account, have their own credit cards, and get a mortgage without a man’s signature.
The woman who quite literally introduced the idea that the14th Amendment of the Constitution meant that equal protection under the law applied to all citizens, including women, opening the door for so much change in regard to women’s rights.
Ginsberg was so passionate about women’s rights because she had to put up with so much discrimination when she was starting out in the 60’s. Despite attending Cornell University undergrad and then graduating at the top of her class at Columbia Law School, she still struggled to find a job because she was a woman, a mother, and a Jew.
To rise from that struggle, to not give up, and force success to the point that you start out “un-hirable” and then end up presiding over the highest court in the land is unfathomable.
She did it though. Because she made it possible.
In 1993 when Ginsberg was nominated by President Bill Clinton she became only the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court. She ended up serving for almost 30 years on the court influencing landmark decisions. When she couldn’t convince the rest of the court to vote in a way that reflected equality, she issued scathing, impactful dissents.
In the 1996 case United States v. Virginia, the all-male admissions policy at Virginia Military Institute was challenged. The court, led by Ginsberg, determined that the state funded school had to accept women for admission, establishing sex equality as something that must continually be held up by the Constitution. In the opinion, Ginsberg wrote, “generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.”
In the 1999 Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. court case Lilly Ledbetter was suing her employer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, after discovering that over her 19-year career she had received lower compensation than her male counterparts. The Supreme Court ruled against Ledbetter which resulted in Ginsberg delivering a scathing dissent against the 5-4 all-male majority, accusing the males of being indifferent to gender pay gaps.
She supported the rights of women to have access to health care and birth control in the 2014 case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. The case centered around Hobby Lobby refusing to pay for specific types of contraceptives for employees. Ginsberg was appalled by the court’s verdict in favor of Hobby Lobby, writing in her dissent that choices about contraceptive should, “be the woman’s autonomous choice, informed by the physician she consults.”
Supporting gender and sexual equality, Ginsberg voted in favor of same-sex marriage in the case Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 which legalized gay marriage. She interrupted the questioning of skeptical judges with the point that, marriage had evolved over the years from what it originally was, that, “Same-sex unions would not have opted into the pattern of marriage, which was a relationship, a dominant and a subordinate relationship. Yes, it was marriage between a man and a woman, but the man decided where the couple would be domiciled; it was her obligation to follow him. There was a change in the institution of marriage to make it egalitarian when it wasn’t egalitarian.” This opinion was echoed in the group’s final decision that, gay marriage should be legalized because “the history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution even as confined to opposite-sex relations has evolved over time.”
Her impact was felt by us, the American people, who benefitted from her work, and those on the court. Chief Justice John Roberts described Ruth Bader Ginsburg as “a tireless and resolute champion of justice…Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature…We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague.”