With RBG’s Passing, We’ve Lost Our Small Giant
The late Justice was one of the most important figures in women’s history. Without her, our future is uncertain.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an iconic figure in the American feminist movement and one of the most reliable liberal votes on the Supreme Court, has died of complications from cancer at the age of 87.
Ginsburg’s ill health was not a secret. She was first diagnosed with cancer over 20 years ago; she began treatment for her fifth recurrence in July. Liberals had long ago made a running joke out of praying for her well-being; there was, as New York Times writer Amanda Hess once put it, a “national death watch” for her survival.
Yet somehow, Ginsburg’s death was still a gut punch. My husband told me to sit down before he gave me the news. Within the hour, the phrase “No. No. No.” was trending on Twitter. Ginsburg had become a meme of the #resistance in recent years. She was Notorious RBG, she of the fabulous dissent collars and pithy interview quotes. (When asked at what point she’d be satisfied with the number of women on the Supreme Court, her preferred answer was “when there are nine.”) We made her a hero, a cartoon, a meme, a bumper sticker (“You can’t spell ‘truth’ without ‘Ruth’”) until it was easy to forget that she was just a very sick, very old woman, on whom the future of this country happened to depend.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg Was a Fighter, But I Feel Defeated
RBG’s death is about more than her slipping away. It feels like American women are losing our grip as well.
For women and feminists, in particular, this is a gutting loss. Feminist history is a fragile thing — the movement holds itself to a high standard, and historically does not have a problem cutting ties with leaders who no longer meet its standards. Ruth Bader Ginsburg sometimes drew fire, especially in recent years, for her perceived centrism, and certainly, she did not comport herself like a rabble-rouser. She was small, meek, ladylike; she believed in incremental change and was good friends with conservative nightmare Antonin Scalia.
It is as if we’ve lost a continent; as if some vast territory has sunk into the sea.
Yet she was also a giant; someone whose early legal work laid the groundwork for every contemporary fight against gender discrimination. Yes, she was one of the last lines of defense for reproductive rights on the court (without her, Roe v. Wade edges even closer to being overturned) but long before she sat on the court, she argued before it, persuading the Supreme Court that the 14th Amendment covered “sex discrimination” as well as racial discrimination. The idea had a history, and Ginsburg’s work was informed by other feminists, including Black civil rights activist and lawyer Pauli Murray. Yet the idea that gender constituted a political identity, or that women were a class one might discriminate against, was not a part of the Supreme Court’s decision-making process before Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and it is now the legal basis for just about every legal protection women have. Nor do the benefits of Ginsburg’s work stop with women. This summer’s historic Bostock ruling, which determined that LGBTQ+ employees cannot be fired on the basis of their sexual or gender identity, did so by finding that anti-trans and anti-queer sentiment is “sex discrimination” — the very concept that Ginsburg first brought to the court.
It is as if we’ve lost a continent; as if some vast territory has sunk into the sea. It hurts doubly to lose Ginsburg in this moment, when the country is run by a president who stands against everything she fought for, and Mitch McConnell’s intention to hold confirmation hearings as soon as possible means that a conservative Congress will likely choose her replacement over her explicit dying wish. But it would hurt at any time, on any day. For me, a feminist and as a person who experiences some form of gender discrimination every day, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has simply always been there; someone in power who had my back, a living link to the feminist movement of the 20th century who was still doing vital work in the present day.
The person to come after Ginsburg will not equal her, and may very well undo all she worked for. But today, perhaps, it is enough to say that an era of history has ended. The tireless Ruth Bader Ginsburg is resting, and we will have to fight our own fights, now that our giant is gone.