We Failed Ruth
Who will protect Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s lifework while Donald Trump is still president?
The news lit up my husband’s watch while we sat outside waiting to pick up dinner. He threw his hands in the air and started to cry. I cried too.
We cried not because it wasn’t time. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was 87 years old. She’d been battling cancer on and off since 1999. Marty Ginsburg, her beloved, had been dead for 10 years. She’d had a full career and a full life. Her death at an old age, after a life of great impact, should have been a peaceful thing for people like me who had never even met her. She once said her life was so good she felt she was born under a bright star. May we all be born, and reborn, under such a heavenly body.
No, I cried because America has become a place that might crack all the way open because one person has died. We are a biting, bitter people. Our leaders seek power beyond their measure and our people vote viciously, when they vote at all. Consensus is deemed a fool’s construct. We hate one another. Squabbling and squirming, we’re held loosely together by unraveling norms and the memory of the idea of social trust.
Justice Ginsburg knew what would happen when she died. Over the past four years, she’d seen us as we are. She knew we’d sink our teeth into one another’s livers while raging about the vacancy she left behind. She knew we couldn’t help ourselves. News outlets are reporting that in the days before she died, when she knew it was almost over, she dictated a statement to her granddaughter. So far we only know one line of it: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
My husband read me this quote as we drove home. I had to pull over to catch my breath. A curse on our house for making women worry about what they’ll leave behind when they finally rest from their labor.
Ginsburg was important to America. She was important to the women of America. It was her work as a lawyer that finally convinced the Supreme Court that women deserve all the same rights as men because women are, you know, people. She once said, “The words of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause — ‘nor shall any state deny to any person the equal protection of the laws’ — well that word, ‘any person,’ covers women as well as men. And the Supreme Court woke up to that reality in 1971.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg affirmed my personhood and my daughters’ personhood.
It wasn’t her job to play a political game. Her job was to do her job. And her job was protecting our rights, granting us personhood, and voicing clear, calm reason.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, Ginsburg was pressured to retire to allow him to appoint someone young who could move the court to more progressive spaces over the coming decades. When asked why she didn’t give him a chance to put a judge on the court, she’d say she was going to serve “as long as I can do the job full steam.” Often she’d add, “There will be a president after this one, and I’m hopeful that that president will be a fine president.”
It wasn’t her job to play a political game. Her job was to do her job. And her job was protecting our rights, granting us personhood, and voicing clear, calm reason. I didn’t always agree with Ginsburg, but I always felt safe with her. She believed her work was safe with us. She believed that whether the next president aligned with her ideologically or not, he’d be a fine president. By voting in Donald Trump, we failed her.
Loved by an American majority, Ginsburg wasn’t in the majority decision in every case taken on by the Supreme Court. Still, she made powerful use of her obligation to write dissenting opinions. She believed that if she dissented well enough, sharply enough, wisely enough, her dissent could persuade future courts. She told NPR, “Some of my favorite opinions are dissenting opinions. I will not live to see what becomes of them, but I remain hopeful.” She used her right to dissent to pave a future path with persuasion from a soon-to-be past.
I see the world Ruth Bader Ginsburg was reaching for, but I am in the world she left. It is desperate and divided, greedy and gawping, full of fissure and fault. It’s a world so unsettled, it can be undone with a single last breath. I do not know what the morning will look like because tonight one woman was finally able to close her eyes and rest her shoulders.