Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died yesterday at 87 from metastatic pancreas cancer.
The tributes have been overwhelming, including this New York Times review of her life and career by Linda Greenhouse, this post by Amy Howe, a reporter for SCOTUSBlog, and a lengthy profile in The New Yorker by Jill Lepore.
Reading through them, I’ve been impressed with two aspects of Ginsburg’s career.
First, she thought and fought strategically, with subtlety and with perseverance. Her work on gender equality at the ACLU in the 1970’s started with cases where men were being treated unfairly. In the 1975 case Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, a man named Paul Wiesenfeld, whose wife had died in childbirth, was denied Social Security survivor benefits because a woman’s income was considered unimportant to the family. Ginsburg’s point, and the basis of her entire strategy, was that discrimination on the basis of sex harms both men and women.
Second, in the early 1960’s Ginsburg worked at Columbia University on a project comparing civil procedure in the US and Sweden. The project required her to learn Swedish and to spend time in Sweden. (She was later awarded an honorary doctorate by Lund University.) At that time, women’s rights in Sweden were far ahead of those in the US. Ginsburg participated in a trial where the presiding judge was a woman eight months pregnant. Her experience in Sweden was enormously influential, showing her that a country could make different and more equal choices about how to structure society. Since I work in the travel industry, this is also a welcome reminder of the benefits of travel in bringing people together and in broadening our perspectives.
Ginsburg’s death has hit the country hard. And it’s not just because of the inevitable bitter fight over her successor (she cannot be replaced) that has already begun in the middle of a rancorous election. For progressives, and maybe others too, RBG was a beacon of hope.
Her career, her voice, even her mere presence on the Supreme Court, showed us that a different path was possible. Equality and fairness were not just idealistic pipe dreams for her. They had a firm and rational basis in the law. Even in her dissents, perhaps especially in her dissents, she gave us reasons to hope for progress, for a better, a more equal and a more just country. In fact, as she said herself, “that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today but for tomorrow.”
Some of that hope has died with her.
It has certainly darkened my outlook, adding to the pandemic, racial injustice, natural disasters, and toxic politics that have made 2020 one of the worst years I can remember.
On a personal level, I think RBG’s death prompts us to examine our own lives. Are we doing something meaningful, something worthy with our time? Are we dissenting when we see something that’s not right? Are we, in her words, fighting for the things we care about, but doing it in a way that will lead others to join us? Are we making the world a better place? Are we doing all we can, exerting ourselves to the limits of our capabilities?
For me, I have to admit the answers are “partially” and “somewhat” and “not enough” and “I could do more” and above all “not to the same extent as RBG.”
An example and an inspiration.