By Ellen Nimmo
Ruth Bader Ginsburg lived a total of 87 years, and then she died.
While that statement is true, it leaves out a whole heck of a lot, wouldn’t you say?
It doesn’t mention her time at Harvard Law School where she was one of just nine women in a class of 552, developing the quiet perseverance which later placed her as litigator of some of the United States’ most impactful disparate sexual discrimination cases. It neglects to mention that her strategy in overcoming the implicit nature of this type of discrimination began as she calmly, convincingly brought to the courts attention how this sort of discrimination hurts both men and women. It forgets to reference her clean and clear objective: to free women and men from assumptions about “what ‘they’ are like,” relying instead on what they are capable of. It skips over her mother’s death and her oft repeated command to “be a lady” quickly accompanied with a “be independent.” Neither does it mention her now famous lace collars, highlighted against the black robe of justice. It doesn’t even hint at the fact that Justice Ginsburg was the daughter of an immigrant and a first generation American. That she had an older sister that died while Ruth was still a baby. It misses the countless hours spent studying, poring over laws, case facts, and thoughtful consideration of what was at stake. Nor does it mention her nomination to the United States Supreme Court in June of 1993. It doesn’t say bip about her adoring husband, Marty, their two children and four grandchildren. That she cared for Marty when he was sick with cancer, attending his classes and taking notes for him so that he could graduate law school. It fails to mention her deep love of Opera or the fact that she was a terrible cook.
That’s just some of what it leaves out. No doubt there’s much, much more. But all this information about her life, that’s not why I am writing about RBG today.
Justice Ginsburg lived. And last Friday, Ruth died. Notoriously.
As my social media began filling up (and when I say filling up, friends, I mean filling up) with tributes, salutes, war-cries and sorrowful devastation over our dearly departed RBG, I had to marvel. What an impact! What a woman. What a voice for the unheard and underrepresented. What legendary marks she left on her generation as well as those that would come after. What a human.
Two days later, on Sunday, a friend of mine told me she cried like she hadn’t cried in a long time after realizing Justice Ginsburg had died. A waking void crashing onto the reality of an already strenuous year.
I was struck at the depth which my friend seemed to feel RBG’s death. The outcry, the devastation I saw on social media, I seemed to go somewhat untouched by. Was something wrong with me? Did my heart not beat for justice? Did my blood not surge for equity, for opportunity and mercy like I thought it did? Was I less of a woman? Worse, was I complacent or unfeeling? I wondered. Worried even.
Next evening came and I found myself watching RBG, the 2018 documentary.
It was then, within the film’s first seven minutes, my sorrow came. Tears came. By the 7:55 minute mark I had paused the film to wipe my eyes and recover. The frame was frozen on a scene from her 1993 inauguration onto the Supreme Court. I counted eight women out of the forty-plus people in the frame (only finding one person of apparent color, btw). Strange to think how it must have felt for those in the room that day, but that’s a different story.
“Be a lady and be independent.” Ruth recounted her mother’s instructions for the camera crew. And, by “lady” she meant, “don’t waste time on useless emotions – like anger,” Ruth explained. And, by “independent” she meant, it’s ok if you marry Prince Charming, but be able to “fend for yourself.”
It seems, for RBG, keeping her dreams of equal citizenship alive (that is, protection and equity under the law) was possible only with the unwavering support of her doting husband Marty. If that sounds paradoxical to you, don’t worry, all the best things are.
Following in the steps of the Civil Rights movement, Ruth Ginsburg adopted the approach of “one step at a time.” One of her most famous quotes (she has many) is credited to Sarah Moore Grimké, who is often referred to as the mother of the suffragette movement. It begins simply, “I ask no favor.”
Dang if that doesn’t get ya right in the tear ducts? It’s not favor she asks for, but equity. A feature which is supposed to be a given, understood, inherent. Alas, things get corrupt, mangled, lost. Justice Ginsburg saw that and used her soft voice powerfully to help recreate what had been distorted. Asserting, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”
RBG’s conviction held fast to the end. Her steadfast objective to illuminate for the courts, for the country, the blind spots of inequality and discrimination in the hope of creating that paradoxical, but essential: more perfect union.
I want that too, don’t you?
I want a more perfect union like I want peace, like I want safety and security. I want a more perfect union like I want health and family and respect for all.
In fact, I’d argue that we all ache for a more perfect union. We just have a way of missing the mark. I believe this desire comes from being created in the image of God. God’s designs and desires for us are more perfect than we dare imagine and I believe God’s design and desire for this aforementioned “more perfectness” is made possible through Jesus.
So, it will be of little surprise to you now (if you’re still reading) that I can’t help but think of Jesus at this moment. This moment of turmoil and pain, of war-cries, distress and woeful sorrow. Yes, I’m thinking of Jesus and how he treated women. How he valued and respected them; how he brought them to the forefront when culture would have kept them neatly tucked in the background.
Ruminating on the extraordinary life and reach of Ruth Bader Ginsburg during her 87 years, led me to remember the extraordinary life and reach of Jesus. I imagine the two would have shared a lot of common ground and there’s a lot they might have disagreed on too. But their shared example of conviction, steadfast resolve, compassion, and meekness compelled their influence beyond their circles and into the culture at large, even as they stood bravely in opposition to the majority, inspires me.
It is in this hope, the hope which faith brings, that I put useless anger aside and endeavor to act in perseverance and with purpose.
Ask no favor. Only in the name of a more perfect union, dissent.