Though the news cycle has moved on, today to covering the hearings on the nominated replacement, I am still thinking about RBG. I am grateful that she was there as a beacon for four generations of feminists. I’m grateful to her for opening doors that I walked through.
I decided to go to law school—solely to be a public defender– during the summer of 1991, my interest sparked by working as a student investigator at the Public Defender Service in DC. Before that, I’d made fun of friends headed for law school the same way I’d made fun of the people saying I should spend my time at Cornell pursuing an M-R-S degree. My senior year of college was spent applying to law school during the hearings at which Anita Hill was treated horribly, Clarence Thomas horrifically replaced Thurgood Marshall, and everything about SCOTUS, politics and the legal profession was demeaned. I was ambivalent enough about law school to defer going for a year.
August 1993, the month I ultimately did start law school, was the same month that the Senate confirmed RBG to join the Supreme Court. During my first year, she spoke on campus at Celebration 40, an event [unironically] celebrating that the law school had been admitting women for [only?!] 40 years. RBG talked about the hostility toward her as one of nine women in a class of 400 in 1956, and of being unable to find a job after graduation. “I struck out on three grounds,” she said. “I was Jewish, a woman, and a mother. The first raised one eyebrow; the second, two; the third made me indubitably inadmissible.”
As a student a few months into experiencing male law professors leading discussions dominated by overconfident male law students, it’s hard to overstate the impact of hearing her speak candidly about the challenges she’d overcome along the path to SCOTUS (where she described how the Court had just renovated the robing room to install a women’s restroom equal in size to the men’s).
She graciously tolerated that a small group of us women ILs followed her around like ducklings during that fall day in 1993, from building to building, peppering her with questions while stumbling over our own words. She was a tiny, witty, warm, encouraging, piercingly smart, warrior. Every one of us weird little ducklings got a glimpse of how she had brilliantly blazed a trail that created opportunity for us.
I was lucky to see her speak at other law school events over the years. She was always impeccably composed and charismatic. I’d listen and wonder if she’d ever wanted to scream burn it down and stopped herself, instead relying on that piercing confidence that she would outwork and outsmart and out strategize everyone.
Her focus on women’s rights was a strength, and perhaps sometimes a weakness. Her strategy was brilliant and effective over time. And she is rightly criticized for a mixed record in other areas, and for her failure to hire people of color as clerks. I think of this sometimes when I question dedicating so much of my own life to the rights of the indigent accused, all the while not marching as much as I would like for other crucial issues like climate change or racial justice. Sometimes this prioritizing disappoints me; sometimes I remember that persistence and focus over time produces results. These are not easy decisions, choosing a cause to which to dedicate your one wild and precious life.
In 2010, I was one of 30,000 people in the audience at Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference in Long Beach, when Diane Sawyer interviewed Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg together, and this happened:
“I’ve got to tell you, I went to the Supreme Court recently… I sat in on an argument, and I looked up at the bench on which I sat for 25 years, and what did I see?” O’Connor said. “I saw on the far right, a woman. On the far left side, a woman. And here in the middle, a woman. And it was dazzling.”
“It’s the first time the public can see we’re really there. Really there to stay,” Ginsburg said.
“How many women would be enough?” Sawyer asked.
“Nine,” Ginsburg replied with a smile. “There’ve been nine men there for a long time, right? So why not nine women?”
The roar of the crowd was deafening. At that time, my daughter was four, and I was in a trial assignment that made for an impossible juggle of long murder trials and birthday parties at which I’d failed to procure some requested necessity like pink princess burritos. Barely 90 pounds of the SCOTUS rock star RBG, smiling on a stage far away in a stadium, reminded me that this is the juggle we do. Dig in and handle it, be grateful for having the opportunity so many weren’t given, try to grow the opportunity even more for my daughter’s generation.
In June of 2017, I was sworn in at SCOTUS. As we watched the arguments in the morning before the swearing in, I kept thinking there are THREE women up there asking questions. I hoped that my daughter seeing three women on the court seemed normal, the only way she’d ever seen it, prompting only the question but why not more? I hoped that meeting RBG had the impact of making seemingly impossible things feel a little more within reach. At the reception, I asked RGB if she still thought nine was the right number of women on the Court, and she gave that coy smile and said yes, and we needed to pick up the pace.
It was ridiculous to think a person aged 87, who fought cancer five times over three decades, might live forever. Yet it still seems a little stunning that she didn’t pull it off by out strategizing death or sheer force of will.
May her memory be a revolution.