RBG

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — here in her chambers during a 2019 interview with NPR’s Nina Totenberg — died on Friday at the age of 87.
Shuran Huang/NPR

I don’t really think of myself as a person with heroes, but, I guess I have a few, and RBG would be one of them.

If you click on the photo above, you’ll end up over at National Public Radio (NPR) which is the only place you should end up, IMHO (in my humble opinion) simply because reporter Nina Totenberg has been so complete and so kind in her coverage of all the justices as long as I can remember. No other news source has covered the SCOTUS more thoroughly, and more fairly than Nina and NPR. (And this is me, doing exactly like I tell my students not to do, talking about Nina, as if we were buds. And it is exactly something Nina never does.)

There are so many outsized and amazing things about RBG. She survived in a women-hating world (law) at a very young age. She argued 6 times before an all-male SCOTUS herself. She was married for 50 or so years to the genuine love of her life. She went to work, and back to work, over and over, from her 20s to her 80, during real challenges in her husband’s health, her own health, and other family issues, when lesser people would have given in. One thing that everyone is remarking on, she was friends with Justice Scalia, a name I can barely type without anger rising in my gullet. This is something few in politics can even imagine today, being friends with their ideological opposite. She was beyond extraordinary.

Well, if you’re going to pick a hero for yourself, Pearce, might as well pick a super-hero.

Women in the USA owe her so much, and many don’t even realize it.

“Ginsburg is the rare supreme court justice whose most significant work was done before she joined the court. She changed the course of American law not as a supreme court justice, but as a lawyer, the founder and general counsel of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. Ginsburg began the project in 1972, the same year she joined the faculty of Columbia Law as a professor; by 1974, the project had participated in nearly 300 gender discrimination cases nationwide. Ginsburg personally argued six gender discrimination cases before the then all-male supreme court, winning five. She built on her victories one by one, establishing precedents that made future victories easier to win.

First was Reed v Reed (1971), a monumental victory that struck down an Idaho law favoring men over women in estate battles. That case extended the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment to women, barring laws that discriminated by sex. Ginsburg followed this case with victories in Frontiero v Richardson (1973), barring gender discrimination in compensation of military members, and Weinberger v Wiesenfeld (1975), striking down gender discrimination in state benefits. Her tactics were savvy; she framed gender discrimination in ways that made the practice seem unreasonable even to hardened misogynists. In Craig v Boren, she successfully convinced the court that state laws that distinguished on the basis of sex needed to be subjected to at least what was called “intermediate” scrutiny; she won the decision not by arguing for women to have equal freedom to men, but equal obligations. In Weinberger, she managed to get a discriminatory practice deemed illegal largely by virtue of finding a rare case in which the victim of sex discrimination was a man.

These victories, coming down between the years 1971 and 1976, forced laws to change nationwide. It is impossible to overstate their impact. One moment, much of family, tax, and financial law was made of statutes that codified men as breadwinners and beneficiaries, women as dependents. Within just five years, all these laws were declared unconstitutional. At the time the supreme court first ruled in Ginsburg’s favor, in Reed v Reed in 1971, many banks still would not issue women credit cards. By the end of it, her work had helped to usher in a feminist revolution that has changed the face of American families and expanded the possibilities for American women’s lives.” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/18/ruth-bader-ginsburg-death-legacy-supreme-court)

And, I have to tell you, it is this lack of understanding of what women haven’t had that has often caused me to be frustrated with or disheartened by the young women I teach. I was an adjunct at the University of Delaware I cannot easily count how many young women told me that men, like Bernie (big Bernie fans there among the ladies) would be better presidents than women because men are just better at it. And, when I was teaching at Santa Ana College, a large number of the young women I taught there would say how men should make more money than their wives, and the women should take their husbands’ lasts names, because when women make more money or keep their last names, men feel badly, and they feel not manly, and women have to help with that.

I remember when I was a college student myself, and living in a neighborhood at University of Penn (though not attending… too expensive for my family to even consider), in an apartment surrounded apartments occupied by white male students, how harassed I was for my Mondale/Ferraro poster. I faced a verbal confrontation almost daily, and had my apartment windows broken, because the guys at Penn were losing their minds over the mere possibility that a woman might become VEEP.

Of course, Mondale and Ferraro were running against Reagan/Bush. And those were dark times for women. Nancy Reagan certainly popularized a shut-up and stand-by-your man ethos. Women, at least many white women, believed her. The movement lost momentum, and women who had once marched must not have told their daughters in any meaningful way about what they hadn’t had before. Of course, that is an assumption, but, I have been teaching incoming freshman at colleges and universities since 1991, in urban and suburban and rural settings, and women do not seem to see a problem with their situations when it comes to gender equality, and that is a huge loss.

And that is why we need a SCOTUS that looks to the future, that sees the needs for society that society cannot see for itself, and which was a major problem with RGB’s friend, Scalia. He felt The Constitution was a dead document. And it is, in so much as it was written to be complete to the best of the imaginations of the men who wrote it at the time. However, the fact that they immediately attached a Bill of Rights to it shows them setting a precedent for revision.

RGB was able to see that women needed their own rights cemented into law, so that they would never be in question again.

I am very afraid of being emotionally wounded in the coming weeks and months, as people attack RGB from both the left and the right. From the left they will say she should have stepped down when Obama was in office, as if her career was not her own, as if she still had not earned the right, as a women, to fully own her own career. And from the right they will say any horrible thing they can think of to smear a woman who earned every single accomplishment in her life with blood sweat and tears, unlike our despicable POTUS who has only ever broken a sweat after eating fast food, or while paying for sex.

RGB was a very very successful woman. She was a very very intelligent and educated woman. She was a beloved friend, mother, wife, grandmother. She was a beloved Justice. She was a champion of the underserved and under-heard.

She was my hero.

And I feel the world has lost a bit of its magic now that she is gone.

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