“What’s the difference between a bookkeeper in the garment district and a supreme court justice? One generation.”
I felt the news of Justice Ginsberg’s death on Friday, Sept. 18, with the same heaviness of spirit I felt when I learned of the deaths of Stephen Hawking, John McCain, John Lewis–stunned into silence by the knowledge that humanity has lost a great champion and that the world is a little darker, now void of the illumination cast by their light.
Joan Ruth Bader-Ginsberg was a woman who lived in honor of her ancestors and in service of her descendants. A living embodiment of a dream that ancestors like Abigail Adams could barely have imagined when she implored her husband to include women in the constitution that Ginsberg would devote her life to.
Oppression breeds the power to oppose it, and there is little doubt that Ginsberg, the daughter of a woman (Celia Amster Bader) who marched for women’s suffrage, was well aware of her responsibility to both the women who had fought for her then-limited rights and the daughters of the country, not-yet born. That she understood that change must happen systematically within the very fabric of the culture, as well as constitutionally, is apparent in her work–both on the Supreme Court and in her early career as a litigator and director as director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Her early cases were often in the defense of men, a strategy to expand the then all male supreme court justices awareness of how gender discrimination hurts both men and women as a whole, as well as measured move to re-frame the perceptions of the people. One of her earliest supreme court wins, decades before she would join the court as a justice, Weinberger v. Wiensfeld (1975), where she successfully argued that men should be equally entitled to social security benefits following the death of a spouse, set the early groundwork for today’s stay-at-home fathers.
In fact her own 56-year marriage reflected the partnerships that today’s generations can easily take for granted–where both women and men take equal responsibility in caring for children. Her husband, Marty Ginsburg, is openly credited to lobbying for her nomination to the supreme court, not only a devoted partner but an avid believer and supporter of her professional career as well.
Her personal life-experience as a Jewish woman would cement her status as a defender of equality, and she was known to be both ruthless and cutting in the face of rulings she felt were oppressive, whether in opposition of gender, sexual orientation, race or disability discrimination. Yet, she was well loved and respected by her colleagues regardless of political leanings. One of her closest friendships was with a colleague on the complete opposite end of the ideological spectrum than she, the late Justice Antonin Scalia. She demonstrates the strength of this friendship in later interviews, when speaking of the United States v. Virginia, (1996), a landmark case that struck down the long-standing male-only admission policy of the Virginia Military Institute. Bader-Ginsberg shares that though he was fervently opposed to opening admission to women, Scalia made a private visit to her chamber and gave her a draft of his dissent prior to circulating it, allowing her more time to work on her (winning) majority opinion. The ability to cultivate authentic relationships in which even her opponents valued her enough to give her the best chance of success, when they were ideologically opposed to her stance, speaks into the depths of her character.
Bader-Ginsberg was a woman who understood that how you win matters–maybe even more so than winning at all. An adamant supporter of women’s rights to govern their own bodies, she was openly critical of Roe v. Wade, stating that it was overreaching and moved too fast, heedless of the consequences and backlash that was sure to result in the ruling’s wake. She also understood that the power belongs to the people, always.
Justice Bader-Ginsberg tirelessly dedicated her life to the advancement of her country and her long held belief that the real greatness of The United States lies in our diversity, battling cancer three separate times during her years as a supreme court justice, without missing a day on the bench. Like the women who came before her, Bader-Ginsberg had a vision of equality that she too would die without seeing. Bader-Ginsberg ardently wanted the constitutional ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, to overturn Citizens United, and for her seat to be appointed by the 46th president of the United States. Not unreasonable as a precedent not to appoint justices to the supreme court during an election year was set in March 2016, by senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, when the 44th president nominated Merrick Garland for the seat that would later be filled by Neil Gorsuch at the appointment of the 45th president.
While we could argue the reasoning behind the last request, I think that a woman who is known for measuring her words and her long thought out arguments could envision the consequences of pushing through a nominee a little more than a month before election day. Bader-Ginsberg’s life caused her to understand that all lasting change happens systemically, through the generations. The children of the country are watching the actions of the elders (leaders) and they are learning distrust of the system–distrust of the very constitution. There is a sacredness to the Supreme Court of the United States, and while the people might not personally agree with the appointments they should never be caused to question their legality, to question the morality of the very court itself. Winning at the expense of your own integrity is not winning and we should all be mindful of what we are creating (breeding) from our actions.
Rest now, Justice. Rest knowing the children of your beloved constitution will continue to dissent. May her memory be a blessing upon the generations to come.