We knew this news would come.
Someday, but not this day, please. How many of us thought that every time we heard Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s name?
We had seen her flame flicker through four cancer diagnoses, but it was never extinguished. Each time, the flame rose, and she returned to us. This time, too, we wanted to believe she could will her way into the next year, where hope—we also want to believe—is waiting for us.
She died on September 18, just before the beginning of Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish new year. We were already a nation of mourners, in the ninth month of a pandemic that has now killed more than 200,000 people in our country. In the immediate wake of Ginsburg’s death, we were clawing for reserves of strength we weren’t sure could be found.
In these last years, we asked too much of her, but she never seemed to share that opinion. Like civil rights icon John Lewis, who also has left us this year, Ginsburg discovered her life’s mission at a young age. It takes a fierce imagination to work for a world that does not yet exist, and that was the essence of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
For much of her career, she toiled out of sight to most Americans, because that’s what we demanded of smart women. But in 2013, she wrote the dissent that condemned the Supreme Court’s gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and Notorious RBG was born.
The decision in Shelby County vs. Holder eliminated the rule that required states with histories of racially motivated voter suppression to submit proposed changes to their voting procedures for “preclearance” to the Justice Department or the district court in the District of Columbia.
This particular quote from Ginsburg’s dissent drew the attention of legions of people—some of whom in all likelihood had never even heard of the rule: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Who was this tiny hurricane of a woman?
America would soon find out. A New York Times roundup this week recommended at least eight books written about Ginsburg. Countless parents posted recent photos of their daughters dressed as Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Halloween. Grandmothers bought baby bibs designed to resemble Ginsburg’s collar of dissent (raising my hand) and children’s books about her courage and career (now raising my other hand).
In her 80s, at an age when most of America prefers a woman be invisible, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became an action figure doll. According to those who knew her well, she loved it.
Critics—mostly male—wanted her to retire during President Obama’s second term, as if she were interchangeable, or worse, discardable. It’s not unlike the criticism—from mostly men—that we hear aimed at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, now in her eighth decade. This is sexism, chapter 4,000. They never run out of material. Now grandmothers are holding these jobs. How dare we?
As a grandmother still in the thick of my professional life, I have heard such speculation about an older woman’s usefulness before; it sounds like an America that has yet to catch up with us. I am more than 20 years younger than Ginsburg was at her death, but like millions of women, I can recite the names of men who have tried to get in my way. The list is long. When you make us wait so long and fight so hard, you have no business telling us when to step aside. I admired Ginsburg for her wit and intelligence. I revered her for her refusal to apologize for her ambition.
When asked about retiring, Ginsburg offered numerous explanations over the years. For a while, she pointed out that both she and Justice Louis Brandeis, the court’s first Jewish justice, were 60 when they were appointed. He retired at 82. In 2018, at age 85, she told an audience, “Justice John Paul Stevens—he stepped down when he was 90, so think I have about at least five more years.”
A few months later, in conversation with Jane Eisner, then editor in chief of the Forward, Ginsburg delivered her most concrete answer yet: “I’m just candid, and I say: ‘As long as I can do the job full steam, I will be there.’”
And in that same interview, Ginsburg responded to a question about how her Jewish roots may have influenced her career. “I grew up in the shadow of World War II,” she said. “And we came to know more and more what was happening to the Jews in Europe. The sense of being an outsider—of being one of the people who had suffered oppression for no…sensible reason…. It makes you more empathetic to other people who are not insiders, who are outsiders.”
I’m not Jewish, but I don’t have to be to recoil at the effrontery of anyone who felt entitled to tell the daughter of Celia and Nathan Bader—the woman who stood up for outsiders, who dissented on their behalf, who magnified their voices—that her usefulness had come to an end.
In her last days Ginsburg dictated her final ambition to her granddaughter, Clara Spera: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
In her way, even at the end, she was working. This is not surprising. She loved her job, and her country. She was also a grandmother, and like most grandmothers, she must have experienced the emboldening nature of this role. Just when we’re expected to settle down and disappear into the shadows, we fall in love again. We want a better world for our grandchildren, and it drives us to be bold.
When Elle profiled Ginsburg in 2014, writer Jessica Weisberg noted that Ginsburg’s chambers were decorated with photos of her with President Obama, Condoleezza Rice, and other notable politicians. There were also, Weisberg wrote, photos of her with her husband, Martin, who died in 2010, and with her children and grandchildren. In one pile, a stack of Harvard Law Review issues sat next to “an elaborate, custom-made bobblehead doll of the justice herself.”
There’s that flame again.
Barely 48 hours after Ginsburg’s death, Donald Trump attempted to cast Spera as a liar, on the only major network willing to broadcast his braying unchecked.
“I don’t know that she said that, or if that was written out by Adam Schiff, and Schumer and Pelosi,” Trump told Fox and Friends. “That came out of the wind. It sounds so beautiful, but that sounds like a Schumer deal, or maybe Pelosi or Shifty Schiff.”
This disrespects Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her granddaughter, of course, and it is as revealing as it is predictable. This president of the United States does not understand why anyone would ever put country first, let alone in her last hours on this earth. His attempt to call her granddaughter a liar reflects only the view in his own mirror. He sees who he wants to see, and his focus never changes.
I met Ginsburg only once, in 2007 at a Supreme Court dinner for newly elected senators. She was with her husband, and I was with mine, Senator Sherrod Brown. After another senator’s quick introduction that included only my first name, she touched my sleeve and said, “Your last name?”
“Schultz,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, and she smiled. In Justice Ginsburg’s orbit, no woman was just a wife, even in Washington.
So how do we honor this giant spirit of a woman now that she is gone? How do we grieve when political pundits have already moved on to the matter of who will take her place?
This morning I reread John O’Donohue’s blessing, For Equilibrium. These two lines stood out:
As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.
In this time of loss upon loss, we choose who we will be. Ginsburg’s reputation grew because of how she formulated her dissenting opinions, when she was outnumbered. Her writings were not ventings; they were guideposts. “When you write a dissent,” she said, “you’re writing for a future court that will see the error into which your colleagues have fallen.”
Our view of the future is obstructed right now, and some days the vista looks bleak, indeed. Alone, we can surrender to our despair. Together, we can be someone else. Change is always in opposition to the status quo. Every day we decide to try again, we pave more road. One dissent at a time, we are carving out more clearing.
“Appealing to the intelligence of a future day,” as Ruth Bader Ginsburg used to say.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist in Cleveland. Her new novel is The Daughters of Erietown.
Originally Appeared on Glamour