The pomp and circumstance over the last few days has been fitting, celebrating the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG). Today, the dear icon will be laid to rest. May her memory be a blessing.
RBG was a woman who impacted all our families’ freedoms whether we knew it or not. Looking at the generations in my own family, especially the women, I am grateful. But she fought not only for women’s rights, many cases also set men free.
She has lived both a frustrating and grace-filled journey. She was an incredibly patient woman and tolerant of the slow pace of change―she even spoke in an unhurried, deliberate fashion. What was never slow was her mind, even at her advanced age she was able to discuss cases from her long judicial career in great detail. I admit she seemed to handle the incrementally protracted steps of justice much better than I have.
As a woman, incredibly, even though we are half the population, we still are not treated as equal―better than it used to be, but really, what’s taking so long? In 2020, women still only make $.81 for every dollar a man makes―arrrrrgh!1
As I watched documentaries, films and read about her for this article, I was captivated by her strength of character held in her tiny five-foot-one-inch frame. The first Jewish woman honored to lie in state in our U.S. Capitol. Even in death, she broke barriers. A far cry from her memories of seeing signs that said, “No dogs or Jews allowed.”
As she lay in repose at the Supreme Court, you could see her casket in the distance below the words:
“Equal Justice Under Law.” I wasn’t sure if the Supreme Court building was protecting her that night, or RBG still was daring the United States legal system to tarnish that hard-earned decree. I was saddened to think that although it is a goal to continue to strive for, in all honesty, we are still far from achieving that objective.
In RBG’s more than twenty-seven years on the Supreme Court, she voted on innumerable notable cases that would determine myriad equal rights for women. Among them: equal pay between men and women, civil rights, equal access to education, a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, environmental impacts, unlawful searches, voting rights, LGBTQ rights, and protecting rights for non-citizens.
Besides the research, and learning more about this giant of a judge, this article was special for me on a personal level because I spoke with my niece Lisa, and great niece Jackie, to get their views about RBG. I wanted to hear what they thought―all three of us being from different generations. I am sixty-four, Lisa is fifty and Jackie is almost twenty-four. Lisa, Jackie and I discussed how RBG had impacted our family.
In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, RBG helped a male widower obtain access to his wife’s social security benefits, reversing a law that gave women the right to their husband’s benefits while men did not have access to their wife’s benefits. While RBG was known for defending women’s rights, she believed in equality for everyone. This case directly impacted my brother and his family.
My brother Jack married a devoted wife and mother named Jackie―my great niece was named after her. She was always busy―being a mom, wife, having a full-time job, and taking care of the house. Can you relate? Family was important to her and when I was a teen she took me under her wing.
She worked for Hughes Aircraft and became terminally ill. Unfortunately, we did not know then about the dangers of asbestos. She died from stomach cancer at thirty-seven (may she rest in Peace), Tragically, my widowed brother now had to juggle a full time job while raising their three children alone. Lisa said that if it had not been for RBG, her dad wouldn’t have gotten her mom’s social security benefits to help provide for their family.
Lisa knew many details about the life of RBG. A couple of years ago, she and her wife had attended the Los Angeles Skirball Museum’s “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” They also were personally aware of her rulings and they had derived benefits from RBG’s judicial votes.
In Obergefell v. Hodges, RBG voted for recognizing that marriage between same-sex couples is just as valid and worthy under the law as a heterosexual one. This made same-sex marriage possible in all states. Sometimes RBG also enjoyed officiating at gay marriages. This is one of her rulings that brought great joy to our family. My niece Lisa and her wife Kelly have been happily married now for ten years. L’Chaim! (To Life!).
As it turned out, Jackie also was influenced by RBG. Toward the end of college she was trying to determine what she wanted to do, so she too researched RBG―I suppose it runs in the family. She was so impressed with what she learned that combined with a trip to Washington D.C. with Lisa and Kelly, it convinced her that she wanted to be active in politics, and Washington D.C. was the perfect place to explore her interest.
By writing this piece, a personal lesson RBG taught me is that beyond enjoying Lisa and Jackie as family, it was great to speak with these smart women about a subject that matters to all of us. Serious topics are not usually the focus of Thanksgiving or Hanukah dinners in our family. And speaking with Jackie put a big smile on my face. She is among the latest generation sowing the seeds of our futures while she works with a Southern California Congressman in Washington D.C. Jackie is smart, has a positive outlook and is spunky. She is living in Washington D.C. where the action is―and lives down the street from the White House.
In fact, when the Black Lives Matter protest in Washington was held, Lisa was in town, and they both marched in support. Jackie told me how frustrating it was that some hooligans made the news when most of the march was filled with kind, Peace-filled activism. From the mess we read about daily in the news, it might be time for her generation to take over, and we would do just fine.
Jackie took the photos in this article for me. She patiently waited in long lines to snap them because she too wanted to remember this day and honor RBG. Occasionally there are those historical days in our lives that we want to recall. Like remembering where you were when the astronauts landed on the moon―wow, that was 1969, over fifty years ago. I was thirteen and with another teenager and her boyfriend where he worked at a fast-food restaurant. We watched it on a small portable tv. What historic events do you want to remember? Maybe honoring RBG is one of them.
RBG entered Harvard law school in 1956, the year I was born. Another fact I liked about her, she made me feel young. At the time there were only eight other women in the class of 500. Erwin Griswold, the Dean of the Harvard law school, disingenuously invited the nine women to dinner soon after their first semester began. He had each stand up individually around the dinner table to introduce themselves, and declare why they had applied to Harvard, displacing a man who could have filled their place. Oy.
Today many doors are open, but RBG referred to the 1970’s as the closed-door era―there were so many things women weren’t allowed to do. I graduated high school in 1973. For young people today, it probably seems absurd to think about what women were prevented from doing. Like not being able to sign a mortgage or have a bank account without a male cosigner, they were not eligible to purchase family insurance (only the man could be head of the household), or obtain social security benefits for their families when retiring or if they died.
RBG lamented in an interview with Greg Stohr of Bloomberg, that men were the primary breadwinners and women were considered merely working for pin money. They also could not be firefighters or part of the police force. It was not possible for my niece’s good friend to have become the firefighter that she is today, nor a policewoman―there was no such thing.
In 1972, RBG co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, arguing cases before the higher court to bring about gender equality. These sex discrimination cases combined with the Women’s Liberation struggles of the 1960’s through the 1980’s cracked open that “glass ceiling” for me to walk through. Finally, women were beginning to become part of management. It still wasn’t common, but a start.
I remember when I was twenty-four in 1980, and I had just graduated from U.S.C. I had been working for five years at ITT Continental Baking Company―you know Hostess Twinkies and Wonder Bread? I worked full-time for five years as an accounting clerk and was going to college part-time at night. When I graduated, they promoted me to Office Supervisor. I would go on to receive two more promotions, eventually ending my career there in 1984 as Manager of Accounting.
I moved on to other corporations such as Arrowhead Drinking Water, the Los Angeles Times and Deloitte and Touche, LLP as a manager and consultant. These opportunities had been made possible because of the dedicated work and achievements that RBG and others had accomplished. Now of course I realize my efforts had something to do with this, but without their help the opportunity would not have been available.
Currently, these decisions are made on a person’s qualifications and talents and the opportunity to do so was opened by cases that RBG worked on. She was proud that during those years, she was part of the effort to make changes happen.
RBG also defended women’s rights in cases regarding their own bodies whether that meant the right to choose or to not be fired because you were pregnant, which was standard fifty years ago. With her first child, when she innocently told them she was pregnant, she was demoted. Pregnant with her second child and teaching at Rutgers Law School, she hid it by wearing borrowed baggy clothes. Once she had signed her contract, she told them and delivered three months before the new semester began. Later she helped draft the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.2
Women, during these early decades of women’s lib, were not welcome at Harvard or in other universities, in businesses, the military―the list seemed infinite at that time. We were supposed to stay home and take care of the family―an opinion that died very slowly.
I was a devout “Women’s Libber.” Often the question of if you were one of those women, was put to you as an accusation, not a simple inquiry. Combined with the fact that in the Jewish religion, sometimes women faced similar limiting constraints, for me it was a foregone conclusion to be a proponent of women’s equal rights.
As I wrote about in my book, “Blasted from Complacency, A Journey from Terror to Transformation in Israel,” I still cringe at the thought that my brother, Steve, had a bar mitzvah, and I was told that girls didn’t need a bat mitzvah. An old expression I heard around the house was, “A girl you have all of their life, a boy you have only until they take a wife.” So did that mean it didn’t matter how you treated your girls? Oy, don’t get me started.
But I tied up those loose ends when it was time for my son to have his bar mitzvah. At our temple, we were told that if another teen wanted the same date for theirs, you doubled up the ceremony. So instead, my son and I shared our b’nai mitzvah together, one of the happiest days of my life. As the saying goes, when given lemons, make lemonade.
As a minority and a woman, RBG faced discrimination often and fought to be heard. People in the majority sometimes do not understand the impact of being the “Other.” There can be an arrogance accrued from sheer numbers.
RBG adamantly supported gay rights, but unfortunately not everyone does. Jackie told me the story of when she and her brother attended a private Lutheran school. It was the National Day of Prayer, and they were having a school assembly in the gym. Lisa, Kelly, Jackie and Joe Sr. (Jackie’s father) attended the festivities together. Joe Jr., Jackie’s brother, was in preschool, and Jackie was in fifth grade. In between performances by the classes, they had speakers. As the next presenter began to talk, he started spouting anti-gay vitriol telling the kids that gay people were going to hell, God didn’t love them, etc. Joe Sr. looked at Lisa and Kelly’s distressed faces and asked them if they wanted to leave. Of course, the answer was, “Yes!” He said, “I’ll take care of this.”
He walked to little Joe’s class, picked Joe Jr. up, and they all left the assembly. The next day the Principal got an earful and she apologized to Lisa. I was impressed with how they handled the situation. You can imagine how uncomfortable and maddening that must have been. After all these years, it left an impression on Jackie―one of pride.
With RBG, minorities found a voice. What better choice to defend people’s rights than someone who has lived with what it felt like to bear the burden of discrimination? A minority to safeguard our liberty. All minorities―Jews, African Americans, Latinos and Asians, have experienced the pain of prejudice, sometimes blatant and sometimes hidden.
RBG gave a wonderfully inoffensive example of unconscious bias in an interview with Greg Stohr of Bloomberg. She said as she was growing up, the only woman she saw in a symphony orchestra was a harpist. The belief at the time was that men were superior musicians to women. It was thought that women playing their instruments could be identified compared with men, because men of course, played better. They did a test. A curtain was dropped between those trying out for the orchestra and those judging, so that those auditioning could not be seen. The evaluators judged the musician’s talent. This experiment proved that the judges could not tell if the musicians were male or female. The result was that many women became members of the orchestra.
RBG joined the Supreme Court in 1993. She was known for writing Supreme Court majority opinions, but also often for her decent dissents. The fact that she could disagree with people without being disagreeable is a true talent that we all need to study.
It was the way she lived in the world as evidenced with her deep friendship with Judge Scalia, someone who in so many ways was the polar opposite in opinions, yet her close, endeared friend. She concentrated on how they were alike instead of dissimilar. Often when asked how they possibly could get along she commented on how they both loved their family, held the Constitution with highest regard and delighted in the opera. There even was a comical opera written about their relationship, Scalia/Ginsburg. When RBG was describing how at one point during the opera her character entered by coming through a “glass ceiling,” I knew I had to look further into finding a recording, if it existed.
I got a kick out of RBG’s beautiful collars that she wore, and the “language” that had developed between her fans and her. It’s true they added a touch of femininity to the male-fashioned robes with their opening for a shirt and tie, but RBG added depth even to the choice of her collars. There were those for majority opinions, making a statement and dissents. Those she has purchased, and others given to her as gifts.
There was no misunderstanding when on the day after President Trump’s election she wore her dissenting collar even though there were no court decision announcements that day.3
Her moniker, Notorious RBG, while it was “catchy,” was a tribute to her audacity to be herself. Shana Knizhnik, a second year law student who gave her the nickname, said in an interview with Dahlia Lithwick, “Here you had this diminutive person, this tiny human, and nobody saw her as a badass. But when you see what she has done over years with such dignity and grace, it represented that.” A role model to be followed ad infinitum.
So often, even when she lost, by writing her dissent, she would call on Congress to take the ball and run with it, they did, and a law would be changed. Dissent meant the other judges disagreed with her―even her failures had positive impacts. We can also have constructive outcomes if we define F.A.I.L. as First Attempt In Learning. Continue trying when the result matters.
The film, “On the Basis of Sex,” in part was about the incredible love story between RBG and her husband Marty. One of the stabilizing foundations of her life was the support between them. They met in college and attended Harvard Law School together. He was confident enough in his own abilities to look at her accomplishments with pure pride and not jealousy. By the time RBG and Marty were in law school, they were married, had a toddler and Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
As he went through treatments she cared for him, at times attended both of their law classes, took care of their daughter, and organized his classmates to bring copies of their class notes to her so she could type them up for him at night. Remember, portable laptops didn’t exist. Sleep was a luxury she often did not have. He was given only a 5% chance of surviving but he did, until 56 years of marriage had gone by.
I had to laugh, in a Katie Couric interview, RBG commented that her mother had taught her that in a marriage, “Sometimes it’s good to be a little deaf.” When unkind things are said about you, you tune them out. She also found that advice helpful with politicians.
When her husband found a job in New York, she transferred to Columbia Law School. But Marty also made sacrifices for her and as she had opportunities for her career, he stepped in and helped with raising their two children, more than typical for the men of their time. RBG said when they were dating that he was, “The only boy who cared that I had a brain.”
They both worked on a tax case together for Charles Moritz. It was the first gender-discrimination case RBG argued in court―but cleverly, it was for a man facing the judges who were all males. She thought they might be more sympathetic with a man. They were defending the rights of a bachelor for a tax deduction for the caretaker for his 89-year-old mother while he was away traveling for business. At the time if he were a single woman, the deduction would have been accepted. They won the case and opened the door to strike down gender bias cases for women as well, in one fell swoop.
With her top grades, RBG earned her place on the Harvard Law Review―of which years later Barak Obama would be the President. Harvard’s Dean Griswold again stood in her way when she asked to continue her “Harvard” degree in New York. Her husband had gotten a job there, and even though men had been allowed to do so, she was denied. She would finish Columbia Law School, again at the top of her class and also earn her place on the Columbia Law Review.
Although RGB finished top in her class, she could not find a job as a lawyer. She had three insurmountable deficiencies―she was a woman, Jewish, and a mother. None of which permitted her entre to a law firm during those years. Instead she became a law professor at Rutgers and worked for years with the ACLU.
I was proud that she was Jewish, a woman, and had accomplished so much—an enduring legacy that will teach for years to come. She died on Rosh Hashana and in the Jewish tradition, a person who dies on Rosh Hashanah, is a tzaddik (in Hebrew), a person of great righteousness.4 Certainly, this is a fitting description of her and her deeds.
The root of the word (צדק tsedek), means “justice” or “righteousness,” and also is the root of tzedakah, often interpreted as charity, but to Jews, giving to the disadvantaged is an obligation, no matter your personal life situation, and RBG lived her life supporting those needing her help, employing her acute intelligence.
It is our tradition to blow the Shofar, a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah. I could not help but imagine it as an announcement that this great woman was now arriving in Heaven. Rabbi Andrea London says that the blasting of the shofar is “both a call for justice and a call to listen to the pain of the world.” Both issues always at the forefront of RBG’s life’s work.
RBG was a fighter of just causes as well as personally. She fought cancer with her husband and for herself, five times over two decades. Sadly, she just lost her battle. I understand why she became an admired icon. She was the personification of Superwoman. Don’t you think so too?
May RBG Rest in Peace and May you live in Peace, שלום, سلام.
I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…
1 “The State of the Gender Pay Gap 2020,” Payscale, https://www.payscale.com/data/gender-pay-gap
2 By Chloe Schama, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Hero for Pregnant Women,” Elle Magazine, November 5, 2015, https://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/news/a31721/ruth-bader-ginsburg-hero-for-pregnant-women/
3 By Kavitha George, “The Powerful Meaning Behind Each One Of RBG’s Collars,” The Bustle, September 18, 2020, https://www.bustle.com/style/what-do-ruth-bader-ginsburgs-collars-mean-each-one-has-a-special-story-9288551
4 By Joel Shannon, “May her memory be a revolution’: Supporters say Rosh Hashanah brings special meaning to Ginsburg’s death,” USA TODAY, September 20, 2020, https://news.yahoo.com/may-her-memory-revolution-supporters-050254067.html
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