Like millions of American women last night, my first response upon learning about the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was to swear. Loudly. Repeatedly.
Today, in a slightly more reflective mood, I’ve been pondering what the long arc of her career teaches us about how we create change in our society. Justice Ginsburg, more than most, understood that challenging long-held and often unconscious societal beliefs is a process measured not in years, but in decades…generations, even.
One thing sure to get buried in the avalanche of eulogies for Ginsburg is her rise to fame. It was only in recent years that she jumped into pop-culture stardom. “The Notorious RBG” spent the vast part of her six- decade-long career working in relative anonymity. Even after she joined the Supreme Court, she was, for years, an unobtrusive presence.
Like a lot of women we later come to see as the trailblazers, Ginsburg often seemed out-of-step with her times. Her upbringing was conventional, with her mother, Celia, counseling her to study hard, work hard, but to always “be a lady,” and to not waste time on anger. She married at 21 and was a mother at 22. But it turned out that this was no conventional young married couple. Martin Ginsburg was a true partner, someone who championed his wife and her ambitions, and together, they organized their lives to clear a space where they could both achieve their goals.
Despite graduating at the top of her class from Columbia University School of Law in 1959, no big law firms came knocking on her door. “I struck out on three grounds,” she said. “I was Jewish, a woman, and a mother.” She ended up as a researcher on Swedish court procedures, where she was introduced to a culture that valued women. She then became a professor at Rutgers School of Law, where she was told flat-out that she would be paid less because her husband had a well-paying job.
Finally, in 1972, she joined the staff at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she established the Women’s Rights Program. By 1973, the program, with Ginsburg at the helm, had taken on 300 gender discrimination cases. She argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court by 1976, and won five. Each of these hundreds of cases represented some little way in which women were held back, treated as unequal, or dismissed by society. Each small victory opened up a new pathway.
Ginsburg believed that male judges, and people in general, were not necessarily conscious of their bias against women. The model of men-as-breadwinners and women-as-homemakers had been ingrained over hundreds of years; it was simply the accepted order of things. In her arguments before the Justices, she styled herself as a “teacher,” with the objective of “taking the Court step-by-step to the realization, in Justice [William] Brennan’s words, that the pedestal on which some thought women were standing all too often turned out to be a cage.”
This methodical, incremental approach got results, but it sometimes put Ginsburg out of step with a feminist movement that, understandably, wanted change on a faster timetable. When President Bill Clinton selected Ginsburg, by then a DC appellate court judge, for the Supreme Court, there were women within the movement who looked at her career and saw her as too small, too conservative, too cautious, too quiet. She exceeded expectations the way she always had: by showing up, by doing the work, by being meticulous and consistent, and by always pushing head.
I have never lived in a world where Ruth Bader Ginsburg wasn’t fighting for my rights. Like many women at this moment, I am afraid of what happens next. That fear is justified, and it’s probably even ok to feel it for a little while. But then we have to pick up and carry on to preserve the rights we now have……and clear a path for the next generations.