Many Americans were saddened by the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday night. Her friend, NPR reporter Nina Totenberg tweeted: “A Jewish teaching says those who die just before the Jewish new year are the ones God has held back until the last moment [because] they were needed most & were the most righteous. And, so it was that RBG died as the sun was setting last night marking the beginning of Rosh Hashanah.” Aside from the predictable political scrambling on both sides of the partisan aisle, there were numerous and powerful reflections on her life.
I have been struck by her collegiality with those with whom she had fundamental disagreements. Whether her fellow justices were conservative or liberal, there was a mutual respect. Much has been written about her true friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia’s son wrote a powerful piece in the Washington Post about the unlikely friendship. They shared common experiences as New Yorkers, jurists, and lovers of the opera. But their differences brought them together.
Eugene Scalia wrote, “This appreciation for differences was as integral to the justices’ friendship as the similarities. She had made her mark as a pioneering advocate for women’s rights; my father was a traditional Catholic who came to prominence as a critic of activist courts. He respected what she had achieved in an era when the deck was stacked against her; from her experiences, he gained insight and depth of understanding. He liked learning and could learn from her.” As an educator, I value the notion that we can learn from those different from us, and that we can engage in vigorous debate with respect.
In reviewing the many obituaries and reflections over the weekend, there is a clear depiction of RBG: a jurist and lawyer with a precise mind and a dedication to the idea of equality for all. She worked hard for everything that she earned. Her mother died of cancer the day before her high school graduation. She went to Cornell, graduating first in her class.
She met her husband Marty, someone she noted was the first man to appreciate and respect her intellect. She attended Harvard Law School, as a married mother. If that wasn’t challenging enough, she ran into stiff resistance from administrators and fellow students because she was a woman. The dean at one point told her and her other fellow female classmates that they were taking the place of qualified men. She excelled and became the first female member of the Harvard Law Review.
When her husband battled cancer and had to move to New York, she transferred to Columbia Law School. There, she graduated first in her class. She went on have a successful career as a litigator, advocating for gender equality. Justice Ginsburg ultimately argued six cases before the Supreme Court, winning five that helped secure equal rights under the law for men and women.
Her profound impact on young people is inspiring. She became a pop culture icon after powerful documentary on her life. I asked Colorado Academy Gender Studies teachers Emily Perez and Elissa Wolf-Tinsman about her influence, and both noted the impact she had on students as a role model and mentor.
Story Wolf-Tinsman ’19 noted, “For me, she is a reminder that speaking truth to power is paramount. You cannot just sit on the sidelines, because any girl, woman, or person has the ability to overcome adversity and make a change for the better. I will continue to hold RBG’s lasting legacy and strength close to me and ask myself WWRBGD? What Would RBG Do?”
Luis Terrazas, who teaches a class on the Supreme Court, observed a few things about her influence: “As a student of the Supreme Court, I know of no justice whose iconic status compelled and inspired generations of young women to pursue professional ambitions. She was to gender equality what Thurgood Marshall was to racial equality. I predict her legacy will transcend her role as an Article III judge and justice. She embodied others’ aspirations and left the institution better than she found it.”
A student’s perspective
To understand her true impact on young people, it’s best to hear directly from a student. I awoke early Saturday morning and received this email from Ninth Grader Garrett Davidson, who learned about RBG in his Eighth Grade Civics course taught by Liston Hills:
When I was 13 years old, I wrote a paper on civic virtue. The paper was to address a national or international figure who displayed the humility, the social contribution, the courage, the drive for justice, the perseverance, the respect, the integrity, and the responsibility to be dubbed a civically virtuous leader. My subject: Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The judicial powerhouse, the stereotype defying activist, the monumental face of the movement for gender equality, embodied every one of these traits. But Ginsburg lived and breathed the gender equality movement neither to accumulate titles nor to boost her ego. She fought so that any woman could sit on the bar as the equal of any man, and so any man could receive the same elderly care benefits as those afforded to a woman. She stood tall, was beaten back by misogyny and hatred, but stood up again, and again, and again, and again. And behind this unflinching, stone like aura, behind this unwillingness to give way to any person who told her to stay in the kitchen, there was one principle that Ginsburg always exhibited. This principle led men and women, those of color and those who are white, those who are homosexual and those who are straight, to love and cherish Ginsburg as I do, and to find inspiration in her cause and her testimony: the principle of enlightenment through compassion, without hatred or resentment, and with unyielding determination.
Ginsburg once said “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Throughout her career as a lawyer, as a judge, and as an activist, Ginsburg was struck down by those who believed women to be lesser and insignificant. From the dean of Harvard Law School asking, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?”, to lawyers denying her a job even though she graduated at the top of her class from Columbia Law School, Ginsburg was repeatedly nullified because she was a woman. But she did not strike back, she did not throw any sort of insult, she merely stood with the hint of a smile, and compassionately educated men as to why they were wrong and why women are just as capable, just as intelligent, and just as unshakeable as any man. And therefore, her voice was heard, her voice was appreciated, and her voice was followed.
In 2018, Ginsburg spoke to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), addressing the landmark 1993 decision in United States v. Virginia, which stated that it was unconstitutional for public institutions to deny enrollment to any person based on their gender. According to CNN reporter Ariane de Vogue, “Ginsburg said she knew her opinion which opened the doors to women ‘would make VMI a better place’ and thought that those who were initially opposed would learn from their women classmates ‘how much good women could do for the institution’”. In the statements above, Ginsburg uses her feminist perspective to educate male cadets who may have been opposed to the integration of women into the institution. Ginsburg reinforces the positives of integration instead of highlighting the gender discrimination which occurred at the school. So, Ginsburg utilizes compassion to educate, connection to inspire, and leads in a way that convinces others to follow in her footsteps.”
Thank you, Garrett, for the powerful reflection. I hope that all of us, if you haven’t already, spend some time reflecting on the passing and impact of this influential American.