Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Death Felt Like the Loss of a Friend

Ginsburg’s story is, in many ways, the story of women in the 20th century. It’s no surprise, then, that her loss feels deeply personal.

Diana Babineau

Mourners place flowers, messages and mementos at a makeshift memorial in honor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC. on September 19. Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images

I first heard the news while cooking dinner: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is dead. I was waiting for some water to boil and checked my Instagram, scrolling past square after square of Notorious RBG photos (looking fierce as ever) before I realized what they were — not the usual memes of her baddassery, but tributes, remembrances. As I digested what had happened, I found myself sinking to my kitchen floor in shock, water bubbling over the lid, spilling onto my stovetop.

The Noto­ri­ous RBG is now per­ma­nent­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the act of dis­sent.

We still don’t know the depth of the horrifying political fallout coming. With the likely confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, we may face a wholly conservative majority on the Supreme Court for decades. And that so many of the protections we enjoy today should seem to have rested on the shoulders of one woman is deeply troubling and an utter failure of our democracy. 

But for so many I’ve spoken to — especially women — the loss feels deeply personal, as though Ruth had been a close friend. Sady Doyle tried to make sense of this phenomenon through the lens of internet culture in our December 2015 issue, with her story, How Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became the Supreme Meme Queen.” The internet turned Ginsburg into an icon of dissent,” Doyle writes:

The memes about her feroc­i­ty stem from the rel­a­tive­ly few dis­sents she has issued: against the 2006 gut­ting of the Vot­ing Rights Act, against the Hob­by Lob­by deci­sion, against Cit­i­zens Unit­ed. While it’s fun to imag­ine Gins­burg mow­ing down her ene­mies with tar­get­ed insults, the fact is these dis­sents are powerful pre­cise­ly because Gins­burg is so coop­er­a­tive and reserved. 

… This explains why Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg deserves your respect, but it doesn’t quite explain her Inter­net fan­dom. Gins­burg isn’t the first or the only female Supreme Court Jus­tice, nor the only lib­er­al jus­tice, and she is far from the only jus­tice ever to offer a mem­o­rable dis­sent. … How did a qui­et 82-year-old opera fan become the face of fem­i­nist rage?

One answer … is that Ginsburg’s sto­ry is, in many ways, the sto­ry of women in the 20th cen­tu­ry. From an upbring­ing in which her moth­er told her nev­er to get angry, to rais­ing chil­dren while attend­ing law school, to being out­right asked by a pro­fes­sor why she was tak­ing a spot away from a male stu­dent … to earn­ing a seat on the Supreme Court, every gain made by women in the 20th cen­tu­ry has been played out in the gains made by Ruth Bad­er Ginsburg.

Peo­ple can see them­selves in her,” [Shana Knizh­nik, co-author of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,] tells me. ​“She has gone through strug­gles and she hasn’t always had things easy, and her work eth­ic and her stance on life is to always get back up.”

The Noto­ri­ous RBG is now per­ma­nent­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the act of dis­sent. For women and young peo­ple — both of whom tend to feel under­rep­re­sent­ed in the polit­i­cal process — it is inspir­ing to see a woman in the nation’s high­est court whose pow­er comes from say­ing ​“no.” … And we need those women, badly …

RBG’s legacy is now on us, to say no” to injustice again and again and again, as long as it takes.

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Diana Babineau is managing editor at In These Times. She is a consulting editor for Kenyon Review, and her poetry appears in North American Review, The Common, and the anthology Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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