I don’t want to write yet another obituary for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who passed away on Sept. 18. But as a young woman who has benefited immeasurably from her years of service, I have to say something.
Ginsberg has been struggling with health issues for decades, so this loss was expected yet still surprised me. My phone lit up with messages from friends about her passing just minutes after the national news media broke it on their websites and social media. Let me tell you, the hits just keep on coming in 2020.
I have no doubt that national news outlets have had Ginsberg’s life story typed up for months, possibly even years, ready to go on the fateful day. I skimmed almost a dozen of these write ups, and while they highlighted different soundbytes captured from her time on the Court turned into t-shirts and mugs over her tenure, the message was the same: she was a pioneer for women’s rights, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on.
Surprisingly, Ginsberg and Wyoming had a bit in common. Our state was the first to grant women the right to vote, the first to appoint a female governor, Nellie Tayloe Ross.
Thanks to Ginsberg, I enjoy rights that I as a 22 year old woman have never had to think twice about. If I want to attend Virginia Military Institute or any other institution, I can, thanks to Ginsberg’s 1996 opinion determining an all-male admissions policy at VMI unconstitutional.
It’s hard to say whether or not I would even have this job without her influence. College was an obvious path for me, thanks not only to my parents who worked hard to ensure I’d get there as a first generation student, but also to the normalization of women in the workplace thanks in part to Ginsberg.
On Saturday, I watched the documentary RBG. I’d seen graphics of her white lace collar and photos of her donning it over her robe, but I didn’t give it much thought. That is, until a scene in the film in which she explains where it came from.
When she was appointed to the Court, she was one of two women, the other being Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The traditional robe, Ginsberg said, is constructed with a neckline that accommodates a men’s dress shirt. Ginsberg and O’Connor decided to wear these collars. After some further research, I learned that she apparently had multiple collars, each with a different meaning. She told journalist Irin Carmon, who wrote Ginsberg’s biography titled Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, she even has two collars that hint how she’ll vote: a majority opinion collar and a dissent collar.
The concept seems trivial, but it’s incredibly symbolic. Supreme Court Justice robes are made for men. The world, especially before Ginsberg and other women’s rights heroes, was made for men. Even though these robes, and the world at large, still largely belong to men, Ginsberg and O’Connor made them their own and women and girls are following her lead in doing so.
Just her status as a public official who doubles as a pop culture icon reflects how far we’ve come. Her place on the highest Court shows women and girls where they can be with unyielding determination, a moral compass and quiet yet stern disposition.
Ginsberg may have been an icon primarily for the left, but it’s safe to say she’s respected by all. Notable Republicans have expressed their feelings about Ginsberg on social media and through official statements, and she was a close friend of late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. A friendship between two people with differing world views who literally argue with one another for a living is a lesson for us in our polarized and vitriolic political climate.
To the question of when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, Ginsberg’s response is, “when there are nine.”
No one bats an eye when there are nine men. So, Ginsberg asked, why not flip the script?
She said in the documentary she hopes she lives to see such a Court. Unfortunately, her long, storied life did not include such a leap.
I hope I live to see it. And it’s possible, thanks to RBG.