We talk too much about America these days and far too little about Americans. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away at 87 on Friday, was first and foremost a great American. She was not only a woman who rose in the legal profession at a time when that was fraught with challenges, she demanded that she be able to do so while raising a family. And that is exactly what she did, rising in 1993 to the pinnacle of law, the Supreme Court of the United States.
My mother was an attorney who graduated law school in 1976 almost 20 years after Ginsburg, and even for my mom it was an uphill climb. My mother was a progressive and though she died in 1998, she was a huge fan of the second woman to preside on our highest court. But progressive or not, she was also a fan of the first, Sandra Day O’Connor, though she could scarcely have disagreed with her more. For women of her generation it was less about politics or ideology and more about blazing a trail into the equality we now enjoy.
Ginsburg was a partisan. Some justices are, some aren’t, but her dear friend and fellow justice Antonin Scalia was too. Maybe it’s part of why they got along so well. She viewed the Constitution as a living document. Do conservatives think she often went too far? Of course we do, but she defended her view of our government in good faith, and she clearly earned the deep respect not only of her colleagues on the court, but of Americans as a whole.
In recent years the Notorious RBG, who took pride in the Brooklyn roots she shared with the rapper that name was based on, became a celebrity, especially among young women. In many ways it is difficult to think of a better role model. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not satisfied with the idea of being a woman in a man’s profession or world, She wanted the profession and world to change to accommodate her and other women, not for women to accommodate the profession and world. She was very successful at that.
We live in a time in America when we take for granted the strides our nation and society have made. We convince ourselves we are irredeemable, that our advancements don’t really amount to much stacked up against the oft-ugly history of our nation. Ruth Bader Ginsburg puts the lie to those solipsistic notions. The America in which she graduated law school had a deep flaw of holding back women, but this American, this woman who would not be stopped changed that. This is why we need to speak more of Americans and less of America.
No one of us, no group of us can ever truly define America. America is in fact the process of coming to that definition. Ruth Bader Ginsburg had definite ideas about that, most of which conservatives balk at. But the way she went about it, the respect and even love she had for those with whom her disagreements could not be more fundamental, needs to be a beacon for us now. Now that we hate each other and end friendships and feel the dark cloud of disdain for our neighbors, we need to look to Ginsburg and remember it does not have to be this way.
In the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery there is a remarkable painting of the four women who have served on the court. It has a founding mothers quality about it. And there is Ginsburg, tough as nails. Future generations will not find women being in power to be a strange thing. Ginsburg is a big a part of why. She cut a path for women, all women, regardless of politics.
Her death will create a storm that none of us can predict. It seems fitting for the fiery jurist. But we can all feel inspiration, we can all celebrate her, and we can all know that she made a bridge that women having been crossing ever since, and will continue too into all of our tomorrows.