By Sarina Patel
Off the court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg often seemed like the kind of sweet old grandmother who would find relief in a quiet and ordinary home life: standing at just over five feet tall, with wide eyes framed by even wider glasses, Ginsburg appeared so thin and papery she could be blown away. Until Ginsburg lost the battle to metastatic pancreatic cancer this Friday, many liberals and conservatives joked that her position to serve and uphold the Constitution on the United States Supreme Court was hanging by a thread — one as fragile and precarious as the white lace collars of her black judicial robes.
Yet when asked about her health in a press conference in the 2018 documentary RBG, Ginsburg said: “I am very healthy”. That seemed like all she needed to say: one look in her steely eyes tells the viewers she intended to fight to the end.
Indeed, on the court, Ginsburg proved herself to be a legal giant. In Ginsburg’s near thirty years on the Supreme Court, the distinguished justice was saluted as a stalwart protector of reproductive freedoms and other progressive ideals on a 5–4 Republican-dominated Supreme Court.
So as a young woman, the first thing I felt when Ginsburg died was fear: arresting and cold. Fear for my body — that her death, in potentially tipping the balance of Court to 6–3, has serious implications for millions of young women like me and our reproductive rights nationwide. Fear for my friends — that years Ginsburg spent establishing and defending freedoms of disenfranchised communities like gay marriage (Obergefell V. Hodges) and abortion (Roe V. Wade) might soon be reversed by the implanting of a sixth Conservative on the Supreme Court. And underneath it all, fear for her legacy — that the ripple effect of what Ginsburg can no longer legislate will outlast what she did.
To me, Ginsburg acutely understood how hard and unrewarding it is to be a young female activist — the doors slammed in our faces, the faces made during our speeches, the standing in the heat and delivering flyers to an event no one is coming to, the being told that there is not enough room, the never being enough room. She sought to improve the frameworks that made this so from the inside, and Ginsburg would want us young women to improve on her legacy too…to know that though the law is hard, it can change, and fighting the good fight is what makes that possible.
Since her death, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ginsburg and the ways she strived to live. What distinguishes Ginsburg as a woman in power for decades is not her repeated championing of women’s freedoms. Rather: Ginsburg was able to live in a world which she made possible — not just for herself, but for other women. To honor her death is to celebrate her life — and the lives of many, many young female activists like myself who were able to dream because of her.
Even before joining the Supreme Court, Ginsburg knew firsthand what it was like to be a young female activist. The born and bred Brooklynite graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Cornell in 1954 and a law degree from Columbia in 1959 at a time when most members of the legal profession did not want to hire a woman — a discriminatory practice that thousands of federal and state laws only facilitated. Ginsburg, notably a quiet and focused individual, did not take her righteous anger to march on the streets. She instead channeled it into becoming a law professor at Rutgers in 1963, co-founding the first law journal in the US focusing on women’s rights in 1970, and teaching as the first tenured woman at Columbia Law School for a decade. Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project under the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she ground her teeth into 300+ gender discrimination cases and presented six before the Supreme Court. She would win five out of those six in a span of three years, and lay the groundwork for provisions against gender discrimination in the 1970s by building on each case.
In her cases, Ginsburg sought to dismantle laws which appeared beneficial to women but reinforced their codependency on men, with deliberate word choice (replacing “sex” with “gender”) and strong oral advocacy that would later be commended by even her conservative co-justice, Antonin Scalia. She even chose to represent male plaintiffs (like Stephen Wiesenfeld, a single father unable to collect Social Security benefits) to demonstrate that legal gender discrimination disadvantaged both men and women.
Ginsburg’s legacy upheld itself off the court, drawing fascination across generations and party lines. Between her incredible magnetism and quiet wit, Ginsburg remained a widely-discussed and photographed woman well into her eighties — a decade by which most women are relegated to being undesirable or at least invisible by the public eye. It seemed that Ginsburg, at just over five feet tall, possessed a judicial authority taller and older than she was. By 2013, a combination of her multiple dissents, her push-up compilation and her resemblance to a certain rapper catapulted her into Internet virality, and one eighty year old woman quickly became the most prominent face of progressive politics in the highest legal court of the United States: the Notorious RBG.
Although her appearance may point to the contrary, it’s hard not to believe that Ginsburg was a tenacious student of two disciplines: the law, and also rap. Ginsburg understood that politics and rap have many things in common: the posturing, the archenemies, the reputations carefully crafted to suit a certain narrative, and especially: the sanctity of the written word. As in Biggie’s own writing, Ginsburg’s understanding of this intersection between politics and rap is well-reflected in her judicial writings, where she used her words to speak truth to power.
The Brooklynites’ most striking similarity lies in their respective deaths almost overshadowing their lives in impact. So I think what will outlast Ginsburg is her death — the vacancy it will leave in progressive politics, and the literal vacancy it leaves on the Supreme Court. Her death, to some young women, marks a draconian halt to the very reproductive freedoms which Ginsburg defended. Whether McConnell will replace her with a conservative or respect Ginsburg’s last wishes to hold off until the presidential inauguration remains to be seen.
What should outlast Ginsburg, however, is her penmanship. Only Ginsburg’s brand of quiet feminism, belief in the power of the written word and treatment of our ‘embracive’ Constitution as an organic and evolving being (much like the young women she fought to represent) could have contributed to iconic sentences like “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time”. Even Ginsburg’s insistence on being a woman who says two supercharged words — “I dissent” — in the face of pervasive and institutional rulings (despite creating a legacy of bipartisan respect which she could have cushioned herself on at any time) is revolutionary.
Though Ginsburg and her pen played to win, she often lost. In fact, Ginsburg built her later reputation on the court as someone who regularly dissented against conservative rulings. Sharp and steadfast, her dissenting opinions upheld not only that dissenting is a justice’s right which she should exercise as much as any of her colleagues, but that fundamentally: having an unpopular opinion does not make the woman having it wrong. Each time, rather than turn bitter with defeat, Ginsburg handled her losses as she handled her victories: with grace, wit, and humility. And each time, Ginsburg’s holding herself accountable to lose transparently in an age where words are frequently recast online set a precedent — legal and otherwise — to young activist women across the nation. That there is value in standing up for what you believe in, even if the execution is imperfect.
I do not agree with Ginsburg’s decisions to voice her presidential opinions (as is against the rules) and make uninformed remarks on BLM protests — both of which she apologized for — or her seeking to build consensus and even friendship with the increasing number of conservatives on the Supreme Court. But I thank Ginsburg for always using her platform: from challenging federal law providing different survivor benefits to women to questioning why women could not attend one Virginian military academy, she proved that she mainly sought to teach, rather than crucify, in her extensive civil rights career. I believe, if she were still alive, Ginsburg would encourage us young women to vote in and fight for a future where there will be more standing between women’s reproductive freedoms and a 6–3 majority Republican Supreme Court than one 5”1, 87-year-old Jewish-American woman battling pancreatic cancer. And she would remind us that we were only able to live in that world she created for all of us by her setting a foundational legal precedent against gender (and other) discrimination, the likes of which is my generation’s obligation to continue.
To honor her is to uphold her principles, and to uphold her principles is to maintain that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was more than her seat on the court, more than all the work she has written — far bigger and grander than the body that held her. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, may your memory be a blessing. You were indeed notorious.