The airwaves and news columns are filled with glowing tributes to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — no more than one would expect for such an extraordinary legal trailblazer, truly one of the world’s great leaders. There is little one can add to the many hundreds of accolades heaped on the tiny 87-year-old (5 feet tall, 100 pounds) now being cast as “a towering figure.”
In my own profound grief over her passing, I sought comfort on my book shelf. Two books — “My Own Words” by Justice Ginsburg and “Notorious RBG” — helped me again appreciate her historic stature. I reread stories about her career and realized just how far she had traveled in those 87 years. I read how, when she had entered law school in 1956, women were less than 3 percent of the U.S. legal system and only one woman had ever served on a federal appellate court. Today half of the nation’s law students and more than one-third of our federal judges are women.
I stood in awe of Justice Ginsburg even before her confirmation to the court in 1993. It was not only her role in paving the way for others beginning in the days when she directed the A.C.L.U.’s Women’s Rights Project. Nor was it limited to her role inspiring generations of women and girls, but also for those homey life milestones, among them:
Her mother’s daughter: Justice Ginsburg never failed to credit her mother, saying, “She made reading a delight and counseled me constantly to be independent and fend for myself.” Ruth often repeated her mother’s advice that getting angry was a waste of your own time. When her mom was bedridden, soon to die of ovarian cancer, “Kiki” (Ruth’s childhood nickname) did her homework on her mom’s bed and had to justify the rare “D” received because she had continued to write with her dominant left hand.
Editorialist: Ruth edited the Highway Herald, published by pupils of her Brooklyn, N.Y., Public School 238, and wrote editorials. At the tender age of 13, she authored an opinion citing the world’s four great documents (Ten Commandments, Magna Carta, 1689 Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence). To that, Ruth added a new one, the Charter of United Nations. She urged: “We children of public-school age can do much to aid in the promotion of peace.”
Her teachers: Ruth paid tribute to those who influenced and encouraged her, law professors and others like Vladimir Nabokov who taught European literature at Cornell and who changed the way she read and wrote. She learned: “Choosing the right word and right word order would make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.”
The love of her life: “I have had more than a little luck in my life,” Ruth said, “but nothing equals in magnitude my marriage to Martin D. Ginsburg.” Their love affair lasted from a blind date as Cornell students, marriage in 1954, until his passing in 2010. She gave full credit to her beloved Marty whom, she insisted, did “everything” to make her Supreme Court appointment happen.
Work-life balance: Ruth treasured advice from her father-in-law Morris Ginsburg. (“Ruth, if you really want to study law, you will stop worrying and find a way to manage child and school.”) She and Marty did manage, hiring a nanny from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Ruth spent late afternoons and evenings playing and tending baby Jane before returning happily to her law books. She said, “Each part of my life provided respite from the other.”
Division of work: “Early on in our marriage,” Ruth reported, “it became clear to Marty that cooking was not my strong suit. To the everlasting appreciation of our food-loving children, Marty made the kitchen his home, on loan to friends, even at the Court.” As daughter Jane joked, “My parents divided duties: my father did the cooking and my mother did the thinking.”
Friendship with a Treasured Colleague: Ruth and Justice Antonin Scalia shared a passionate love of opera. They had a forgiving, affectionate friendship and yet they disagreed strongly on many issues before the Supreme Court. They appeared together, more than once, as opera supernumeraries. When Ruth was confined to a hospital in Crete in 1999, the first outside call came from Justice Scalia.
Notorious RBG. After her historic dissents in cases like the Voting Rights and Citizen United decisions, the woman once disdainfully called “schoolmarmish,” became a pop culture icon. Notorious RBG, a humorous nod to the 300-pound deceased rapper Notorious B.I.G., spawned RGB T-Shirts, homemade Halloween costumes, and skits on Saturday Night Live. Ruth’s old friend Gloria Steinem marveled at the justice’s image all over campuses saying RBG was “the closest thing to a superhero I know.”
RBG Workout: After Ruth’s massive surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, her friend federal judge Gladys Kessler recommended a trainer, Bryant Johnson, an Army reserve sergeant who used to jump out of helicopters and airplanes. An MSNBC interviewer said, “I heard you can do 20 push-ups.” RBG said, “Yes, but we do 10 at a time. Then I breathe for a bit and do the second set.”
When Justice John Paul Stevens retired in 2010, Justice Ginsburg became the most senior of the court’s liberals, a leadership role she embraced. Meanwhile, liberal law professors and commentators began telling her that the best thing she could do was to quit so President Barack Obama could appoint a successor. But Ruth loved her job and believed the Court was headed in an alarming direction. She said she needed to be there to explain what the country was doing wrong. That is just what she did.
With the unfortunate timing of Justice Ginsburg’s death only weeks before the 2020 election there will be those who will fault her for not having retired earlier. But her death after so many years of battling all but final health challenges is another magnificent example of the courage and perseverance Ruth personified. It is that strength we need to adopt now in order to correct the nation’s alarming backwards direction.
Do it for Ruth.