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.

Diana Babineau is inter­im exec­u­tive 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.

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