Editorial | The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an example for women everywhere
The contribution of the late United States (US) Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the upliftment of women globally, including here in Jamaica, must never be underestimated, much less forgotten.
From very humble beginnings, Ginsburg, who died last Friday at age 87, due to complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer, rose to the highest of legal heights to become the second woman to serve as a justice on the US Supreme Court.
And though hers was a career path riddled with sexism and other challenges, she fought every step of the way to ensure that she was able to make a difference and to become regarded as a global icon and unrepentant advocate for gender equality and the upliftment of the rights of vulnerable minorities in general.
The prominent lawyer, who was first nominated to the high court in 1993 by then US President Bill Clinton, served for nearly three decades on the bench and continued up to the very last as a vocal opponent of the conservative and rightist tilt.
Though only five feet in stature, Ginsburg stood tall in her profession and ensured that her voice rang loud for the most important of causes.
Born to Jewish immigrant parents in the Flatbush neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York City, in 1933 in the thick of the Great Depression, she attended Cornell University, where she met her husband Martin ‘Marty’ Ginsburg. It was a roller coaster ride for the couple who, shortly after marriage in 1954, welcomed their daughter, Jane, the following year.
While Ginsburg was pregnant, she was demoted in her job at a social security office as discrimination against pregnant women was still legal in the 1950s. She, therefore, had to keep her second pregnancy secret. Her son James was born in 1965.
These challenges did not deter Ginsburg, but, rather, empowered her to fight not only for herself, but for women as a whole.
“I think that her voice brought to the court her willingness to really push for a full and inclusive definition of equality,” said Anita Hill, who, along with Ginsburg,fought for gender equality. “Her legacy is so large,” Hill added.
When Ginsburg was accepted to Harvard Law School as one of the nine women in a class of about 500, the dean asked that his female students tell him how they could justify taking the place of a man at his school.
And despite finishing with top honours, she did not get a single job offer.
“Not a law firm in the entire city of New York would employ me,” she later said. “I struck out on three grounds: I was Jewish, a woman, and a mother.”
Thankfully, the United States, and the world at large have come far since then, though not without a strong fight. And even while we recognise the contribution of one to the process, there remain many thorny paths to be tread before the issues of gender equality are fully addressed.
Justice Ginsburg was seen as a critical counterbalance to the court itself. She was assertive, didn’t mince words, and was vocal in criticism of her colleagues’ opinions and stance.
She often said that her role was that of a “kindergarten teacher” as she explained gender discrimination to her male counterparts. Yet, though outspoken, she was cautious and strategic in her approach. Ginsburg set out to take apart sexist laws and policies one by one.
Her longevity brought immense relief to liberal America, which fretted that another vacancy on the court would allow its conservative majority to become even more ascendant during the Trump era.
Later on in her life, she became an iconic figure, and it was the byproduct of social media when a law student created a Tumblr account for Ginsburg - Notorious RBG – akin to late rapper The Notorious BIG.
RBG connected with the new generation almost instantly – inspiring documentaries, biopics, and numerous novels. She inspired Saturday Night Live, skits and her image was prominently featured on mugs and T-shirts. Ginsburg had, in her twilight years, become a rockstar.
“It was beyond my wildest imagination that I would one day become the Notorious RBG,” she once said in a television interview. “I am now 86 years old and yet people of all ages want to take their picture with me.”
Back in 2019, she said that she did not have any regrets in life. “I do think I was born under a very bright star,” Ginsburg said.
Like her, women the world over must not be afraid to shine. May her legacy live on and on as she takes her rightful place above the clouds.