My heart saddened Friday night when news of the passing of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg scrolled across my TV screen. There was a similar reaction in North Carolina at the home of my niece-in-law Christina, who was celebrating a girl’s weekend with a couple of close friends. Her husband interrupted their frivolity with the sad news, to which Christina immediately responded on Facebook: “Completely heartbroken over the death of my hero, RBG.”
Facebook continued to light up with memorable Ginsburg quotations posted by former students of mine, mostly one or two generations younger. Her statements: “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you,” and “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made,” were posted multiple times. And it slowly dawned on me what Justice Ginsburg’s life and work has meant to so many of us.
Precariously close to my deadline, I nevertheless scrapped the fluff piece I had planned in favor of this article about the courageous, determined, principled jurist. Inspired by her lifetime of opinions and advice, I am simply allowing Justice Ginsburg’s words to speak for themselves – after all, she said what she meant and meant what she said.
Born in Brooklyn of Jewish parents, Ruth Bader was particularly influenced by her mother who had not attended college so that her brother could. The future justice’s mother urged her: “be a lady…be your own person… be independent.” In her 1993 Supreme Court acceptance speech, RBG hoped to be: “all that my mother would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve.”
At Cornell University Ruth Bader met the love of her life, Martin Ginsburg: “the only boy I dated who really cared that I had a brain.” After she graduated, they married and the next year welcomed a daughter. When she subsequently began law school at Harvard, RBG and eight other females had 500 men as fellow students who chided the women for taking spots that could have been given to males.
After transferring to Columbia Law School and finishing at the top of her class, RBG was nonetheless unemployable in 1960: ”I had three strikes against me, I was Jewish, I was a woman, but the killer was I was the mother of a four-year-old child.”
She eventually taught law at Rutgers University, where she was paid less than her male colleagues because she had a husband with a good salary. In fact, well into the 1970s, the profession of law was unfriendly to women because it was difficult: “to persuade judges, overwhelmingly male and white, that there was discrimination against women. Their idea was that women were on a pedestal… protected by the law…women were finding out these so-called protections were protecting men’s jobs from women’s competition.”
Joining the Supreme Court with a liberal-interested-in-diversity label, RBG worked tirelessly toward equal rights, voting rights, and reproductive rights for American women. Through it all, she believed: “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”
As a lawyer, she had argued six cases before the Supreme Court, of which she won five. Later, as a member of that august body, RBG steadfastly maintained that dissents are not failures: “they speak to a future age.” In fact, she considered her advocacy part of an effort: “to make the equality principle everything the founders would have wanted it to be if they weren’t held back by the society in which they lived.”
Indeed, in RBG’s words: “I don’t say women’s rights – I say the constitutional principle of equal citizenship.” She further opined: “how wrong it is to judge people on the basis of what they look like, color of their skin, whether they’re men or women.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg also lived a full life off the bench, impacted by her belief: “if you want to be a true professional, do something outside yourself.” She and her conservative colleague, Antonin Scalia, shared a remarkable friendship and a love of opera. Influenced by the many visits she and her mother made to the library early on, RBG believed: “reading is the key that opens doors…reading shaped my dreams, and more reading helped me make my dreams come true.”
And there were 56 years of marriage during which she and her husband remained devoted to one another, even through the illnesses suffered by both. She advised in marriage and in life: “more listening and less talking…when a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out.” She lost her beloved ten years ago, and yet soldiered on – even working out at the gym in her Super Diva sweatshirt.
But her professional bottom line forever remained: “to make life a little better for people less fortunate, living not for just ourselves but for one’s community…helping to repair the tears in society.”
On no subject, however, was RBG clearer than: “when I’m asked when will there be enough women on the Supreme Court… my answer is ‘when there are nine.’ People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody ever raised a question about that.”
I will close with the words that ended Christina’s Friday night post; she is, by the way, the mother of two young daughters: “May we all continue to champion for women’s rights to honor her hard work for our country.” Blessings, RBG, blessings.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where shack in Julye taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.