I saw Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once. Like most people who have seen her in person, I was struck by how small she was. I was in DC in 2018 with my classmates for a US constitutional history competition called We, The People. Our teacher had arranged a visit to the Supreme Court. She had told us that it was unlikely that we would see the Justices, since court was not in session. However, we found out that several lawyers were being admitted to the Supreme Court bar. We heard the “Oyez, oyez, oyez,” and saw Chief Justice Roberts’ face appearing from behind a curtain. Our class collectively gasped when Justice Ginsburg stepped out to take her seat. My teacher clutched her Notorious RBG tote bag closer to her as she motioned for us to stay quiet. Justice Ginsburg really was tiny. I could barely see her head over her seat, and she never spoke while we were in the courtroom. It really didn’t matter how small she was, though. What she represented to our class of aspiring public office holders, to the future women in politics, to me—was priceless. For me, at least, she was living proof of a woman who had superseded the barriers to entry over and over again. After 2016, I needed to see that.
It was probably 8:00 p.m. on September 18, 2020 when I got a text in a group chat that said, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg is dead. I’m out.” I read that text three times through. I muttered, “No, no, no, no, no,” under my breath and as I googled her,the NPR notification came up on my computer and on my phone at the same time: “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Champion of Gender Equality, Dies at 87.” I was quiet for a moment. A person of such magnitude, of such strength, of such enormity, could not possibly have died. She had already survived three bouts of cancer. She had fought tooth and nail to outlive Trump’s presidency. I saw that Nina Totenberg—longtime friend of Justice Ginsburg’s—had written the NPR article breaking her death. That’s when I started to cry.
Justice Ginsburg has always been a personal heroine of mine. I’ve read many books about her: collections of her dissents and opinions, writings of hers from her lawyer days, and every movie or documentary tangentially related to her. Her jurisprudence and her witty, sharp writing style are familiar to me. I know the cases she tried before the Supreme Court and the legal precedents they set. I was drawn to her because I have always been interested in politics, and because I was raised a feminist, the firstborn daughter in a long line of powerful women who have lived extraordinary lives. As a teenager, I was utterly flabbergasted when I learned that Columbia University did not admit women until 1983, that Yale and Princeton did not admit women until 1969, and that Dartmouth rejected all female applicants until 1972. That realization became a catalyst for me to learn more about the women of the late 20th century—the ones who made it possible for women to attend college, to run for office, and to be accepted in male-dominated spheres of work. Everywhere I read, I found her name. Justice Ginsburg was omnipresent in the women’s rights movement.
This story is well known, of course, but I am still taken aback by the photo of a lone female face in a sea of white men in her Harvard class. Justice Ginsburg was famously one of only nine women accepted to Harvard Law School in 1956, and though she graduated first in her class after transferring to Columbia: she did not get a single job offer out of law school. I learned that she first worked in academia, having been rejected by all the top firms in New York. She found her way into practicing law through a tax case of her husband’s.
Justice Ginsburg worked closely with the ACLU in the 70s and 80s to take down common legal precedents of the time such as social security laws that automatically designated women as homemakers and men as providers, and laws that did not allow women to become administrators of their family’s estates. Out of the six cases that she argued in front of the Supreme Court, she won five. Her work with the ACLU helped bring down statutes across the country that defined men as “head of the household” — laws that forced women to have their husbands co-sign their credit cards and severely restricted women’s working hours as “protective” measures. She was a staunch supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment her whole life, even encouraging young law students to pursue its reintroduction in February 2020. Her impact on the lives and prospects of women in the 70s and 80s alone is immeasurable. And that was before she got to the other side of the bench.
After Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s appointment in 1981, President Bill Clinton wanted to nominate another woman for the high court. Justice Ginsburg was confirmed 96-3 in the Senate. Her legal career came full circle in 2001, when she read the Court’s 7-1 opinion on United States v Virginia, mandating that Virginia Military Academy open its doors to female applicants. “State actors may not close entrance gates based on fixed notions concerning their roles and abilities of males and females,” she said. Her dissent in Ledbetter v Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company was the inspiration for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, a law that made it significantly harder for employers to pay women less than men. I will always remember her dissent in Shelby County v Holder, 2013, a case which all but destroyed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She said, “Throwing out [the bulk of the Voting Rights Act] when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Dissenting made Justice Ginsburg a cultural icon. She went from being relatively unknown to the Notorious RBG: small in stature but a lion in the courtroom. Her dissent collar became a phenomenon. She — a 70 year old woman with a powerful pen and an indestructible work ethic — made herself and the Supreme Court incredibly relevant. I’m a proud owner of Notorious RBG merchandise — a mug and a shirt with all the women on the Supreme Court. The documentary RBG and the biopic On the Basis of Sex solidified her presence within American culture. Both movies shed light on the work she did before she became a judge, and on the brutal setbacks she overcame.
Part of what made Justice Ginsburg’s astronomical rise in popularity such an anomaly was her age. She was an unlikely pop culture figure in a society which judges women harshly for showing their age. She was known for doing twenty pushups a day and for dedicating significant time and energy to supporting the arts on top of all of her responsibilities. Her love of opera (shared with her friend, the late Justice Scalia) was so well-known that there was an opera written about the two of them. Her refusal to step down from her job in her late 80s, after battling several cancer scares, should serve as both an inspiration and a warning. “As long as I can do the job full steam, I will be here,” she said. We should gather from her decision to stay in her job as long as she could that she, too, was terrified for a future tainted by a president who has no respect for laws or institutions. Her final statement dictated to her granddaughter left no room for interpretation: “My most fervent wish is that I not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
Less than two hours after her death was announced, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put out a statement saying that the Republicans would pursue a confirmation of President Trump’s nominee before the election. The hypocrisy, the shame, the utter disrespect of this statement is hard to encapsulate in words. Justice Ginsburg was an icon and a powerful jurist, yes, but she was first and foremost a human being with a family and friends. She was a Jewish woman who passed away on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Her family wasn’t even given a full day to mourn her before Republican leadership announced their plan to go against her final wishes, in blatant contradiction of a precedent that they themselves set. I cried for her when I first read the news and cried again when I read Senator McConnell’s statement. It was nothing short of offensive. It minimized Justice Ginsburg into a liberal commodity that must be replaced by a conservative one. This statement showed that in the eyes of the Republican caucus, her death is but an opportunity to move their chess pieces, a chance to solidify a conservative court for generations.
Justice Ginsburg dealt with bigotry, discrimination, and disrespect her entire life. She was not stymied by the considerable efforts that law firms, lawyers, institutions, and politicians exerted to prevent her from fundamentally changing laws and paradigms about women in the workplace. She didn’t allow anyone to stop her in her path to eradicate gender-based discrimination from the lawbooks. She would, I’m certain, say that her end goal has not yet been achieved. She provided a framework, an example for how to fight the patriarchy, and I feel a sense of responsibility to move forward on the path she set.
Throughout her life, she often spoke about her mother’s influence in her identity. “My mother told me to be a lady,” she said. “And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.” I have always hated being told to “be a lady.” It’s a statement drenched in sexism and expectations for how women must behave that I truly despise. But Celia Bader’s powerful definition is something I can live by. And it clearly served the late Justice well.
Justice Ginsburg’s dissents, in her own words, “speak to a future age.” We are that age and we must be that future. Given her significant impact on the lives of women in America, it’s always worth acknowledging the people who have not felt the benefits of her labor. For transgender and non-binary people, this country remains both legally and culturally oppressive. We must bring an end to that. The powerful legislative, cultural, and legal changes that Justice Ginsburg brought about must be extended to people who do not fit within the gender binary. The future age of which she spoke cannot be simply a continuation of the present one. It has to move us forward.
The Notorious RBG’s passing is difficult to compartmentalize. Regardless of the future of activism that her legacy may inspire, the fear of an unaccountable Congress and an out-of-control president is palpable. Republicans have capitalized on a pivotal moment. A decidedly conservative court can wreak havoc on Roe v. Wade, protection of immigrant rights, and voting rights. It can downgrade the Supreme Court from a check on the executive and legislative branches into a Republican rubber stamp. This very real possibility is not just a partisan loss, it’s patently autocratic. Justice Ginsburg’s death reminds us of the fragility of progress. She dedicated her entire life to fighting for equal rights, and many of her wins could backslide in the next few years. Her death is a passing of the torch to us, and hers was a heavy torch to carry.
I feel the same strange sensation now that I felt the one time I set eyes on Justice Ginsburg in 2018. I was looking at herstory in the flesh. At the fight for equality embodied. It was surreal to see a whole chapter of American history sit across a chamber from me, little but fierce, barely visible over the ornate Supreme Court bench. On September 18, 2020, her chapter ended. But the fight didn’t. I will endeavor to study and learn in her honor, to speak against injustice in her honor, to fight the good fight in her memory because someone must. Rest in power, Notorious RBG. May her memory be a revolution.