Written by Hannah Parkes Smith
It’s a still weekend morning in the middle of September. In Washington DC, the trees are beginning to flare red and softly russet, air heady with the promise of the coming election, and there is a cool in the shade that transcends the changing season. A little sense of foreboding roils as the nation wakes up and sets its coffee to drip, a tectonic grumble in the pluck of the state capital’s bedrock: a change has been made, and an era has come to a close.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died at the age of 87.
The Brooklyn-born daughter of Ukrainian and Polish migrants, Ginsburg’s long and celebrated career in the legal industry was the starting point and catalyst for many rulings on gender equality that the twenty-first century often takes for granted. Her life, writing and work were characterised by two searing convictions: that discrimination on the basis of gender is unlawful, and that a bold voice of dissent is the seed of reform.
Despite graduating Cornell as the highest-ranking female student in her cohort, her rise to the Supreme court was often impeded by a world dominated by men and masculine power structures: in the fall of 1956, she was one of only nine women in a class of five hundred men to attend Harvard Law School. A favourite anecdote on the lecture circuit, Ginsburg would often describe how the nine women were invited one evening to dine with the then-Dean of the college, Erwin Griswold, and as an amusing after-dinner party game, grilled as to how it was they justified taking the place of a man on the university’s most competitive legal course.
The bleak cultural landscape of the 1950s, however, did not deter the woman who would later become known as the Notorious RBG: despite initially struggling to find work due to the profession’s unwillingness to take on women in the frontline legal roles she was trained for, she eventually went on to work with the American Civil Liberties Union, heading their Women’s Rights Project whilst lecturing civil procedure at Rutgers. From there, she pushed the boundaries of the legal system with a number of cases designed to force the Supreme Court to acknowledge the discrimination against women in modern America, and that such discrimination was not only antiquated, abhorrent, but an act in direct violation of the US constitution.
Justice Ginsburg’s rise from the streets of Flatbush to feminist icon is well-charted. Not only instrumental in cases that lit the way for widespread abortion rights, she also co-founded the first law journal on women’s rights that went on to lobby for significant legal change and an end to discriminatory rulings on gender. She became the first tenured female law professor at Columbia University in the early seventies, when women were still fighting for widespread academic acceptance in universities everywhere. One of the most important rulings from this period of her career is, however, often forgotten in the wake of other more cinematic victories: Ginsburg was the driving force behind the historic ruling on women being permitted to open a bank account without a male co-signatory. This small caveat afforded women in the US a level of financial freedom that they had been denied for decades, and for the first time, allowed them to take sole charge of their own earnings as an independent party.
It was President Clinton that gave Ginsburg the nod for Supreme Court nomination in 1993. In recent years, she represented a vocal opposition to the changing landscape of US politics, and often sought to stem the tide of the current administration’s resistance to progressive ideas on body autonomy, discrimination and constitutional justice. She died at her home in Washington DC due to complications born of metastatic pancreatic cancer, and despite her final entreaty that the government follow precedent established in President Obama’s second premiership and not replace her until the election is over, Donald Trump has already nominated vocally conservative Justice Amy Coney Barratt to the role.
For the twittersphere, Ginsburg’s passing seems to evoke a wider sense of finality: the Trump administration threatens a second term, the Covid-19 pandemic tightens its hold on both the east and the west, and the far right raises its head in a way it has not been empowered to for decades. 2020 is lousy with modern-world darkness, prejudice, brutality, and in this murk is important that we not only remember Ginsburg as a figurehead but as a voice that continues to resonate: “The greatest dissents… gradually, over time, become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but tomorrow.”
Image credit: Flickr, Camilo Schaser-Hughes