Reflections on the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Friday evening, I was cooking dinner for my family when my husband came into the kitchen and said, “Ginsburg died.” I froze. My heart sank. I was overwhelmed with a personal sense of loss and grief that rivaled what I felt when family members had passed away. To put things in context, I did not shed a tear when my father died of pancreatic cancer four years ago. But I spontaneously welled-up and cried just seconds after learning of Justice Ginsburg’s death because her loss is so personal to me.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court while I was a third-year law student. Accordingly, none of the opinions she eventually authored were in the casebooks we used to study the law. By the time I graduated, I had come to know a handful of names of people we had been taught were among the greatest jurists of all time—William Blackstone, Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, Henry Friendly, Felix Frankfurter, Learned Hand, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Marshall, and Joseph Story. Whether some of these people actually deserve long-standing legal notoriety is debatable, but I note that all of them were men. Importantly, this is not a function of the fact that men are somehow better at legal analysis than women, but rather because women were systematically excluded from equal participation in so many areas of life, including in the professions. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the single most important person who changed that. As a young lawyer, she began a crusade to dismantle the barriers women faced under the law. As a law student who was passionately interested in constitutional law issues, I studied some of the key cases that altered the course of discrimination on the basis of sex. But I did not learn, until many years later, that the attorney who had successfully advocated for such changes was Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Today, there are few, if any, legal grounds to justify discrimination on the basis of sex. Men and women share a level of equality under law that few could have imagined a mere 50 years ago. But Justice Ginsburg’s contributions extend far beyond equality between the sexes. She picked up the mantle of racial equality from Justice Thurgood Marshall. And she extended her commitment to equality under law in ways that naturally led to the recognition that discrimination “on the basis of sex” includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
I can think of no other jurists who achieved such a level of cultural icon status that they not only have nicknames like “The Notorious RBG,” but also inspired action figures, bobbleheads, documentaries, and jewelry lines. Indeed, Justice Ginsburg’s jabots became so intertwined with her pop culture identity that when I officiated a marriage for a dear friend who is one of the most influential feminist criminologists of all time, I orchestrated an interruption of the ceremony just minutes into it during which another friend loudly said, “Wait, wait! Something important is missing!” And she then placed a Ginsburgesque jabot around my neck, much to the delight of the bride and those assembled for her nuptials.
As I reflect on Justice Ginsburg’s impressive life and achievements, I am in awe of her grace, vision, tenacity, eloquence, dignity, and humility. And I owe her thanks for allowing me to live my life with a level of equality about which I did even dream when I was a closeted college student in the 1980s. I celebrate her as a true trailblazer — a brilliant legal mind, a pioneer for nondiscrimination, a tireless advocate for equality, and a role model for us all. May her memory be a blessing and her legacy be our guide for generations to come.