With a heavy heart, I’m reaching out to mark the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice for the Supreme Court, who passed away last night at the age of eighty seven.
In old age and in the midst of her fight with cancer, Justice Ginsburg became a symbol of resistance. Her piercing dissenting opinions in the cause of social justice made her an unlikely icon for a whole generation of political activists, especially women. We admired her intellect, wit, and tenacity. But well before her picture was printed on t shirts and reproduced in internet memes, Ginsburg had already made history.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born into a working class immigrant Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York in 1933, at the height of the great depression. Her father was a furrier from Odessa, in modern day Ukraine, where Jews had been murdered and raped in terrible racist attacks called pogroms. Her mother, a garment worker, encouraged young Ruth to enjoy reading and pursue her education. Their local public library was a small room over a Chinese restaurant. For the rest of her life, Justice Ginsburg would associate the smell of Chinese food with learning.
Ginsburg was only the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court in US history. It’s important to consider the barriers that a woman, even a gifted student and then a promising lawyer, faced on the path to that achievement. She attended Harvard Law School as one of only eleven women law students in her year, and found it hard to find work after graduation. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter refused to accept her as a clerk because she was a woman. She persevered to become a researcher, a law professor, and then a leader in the American Civil Liberties Union, where she pioneered women’s rights law. Ginsburg argued six landmark gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court and won five of them. In the words of such divergent figures as President Bill Clinton and the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, she was the Thurgood Marshall of women’s rights: what Marshall won in the cause of civil rights and overcoming racism, Ginsburg achieved for gender equality.
She was not only an oral advocate, a writer, and a thinker. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a strategist. In order to appeal to male judges, Ginsburg focused on “gender” discrimination instead of “sex”. She recruited male plaintiffs to show how inequality could hurt men as well as women. Case by case, she undermined the idea that women should be subordinate to and looked after by men, or that they should be denied access to the same financial or legal protections, or that women should have a different drinking age or obligation to jury duty. As a Supreme Court Justice, she wrote the majority opinion that ended gender discrimination in admissions to the state run Virginia Military Academy. Even as the Court shifted to the right, and as she found herself increasingly in the minority, she wielded her intellect and life experience as a weapon for equality. Every woman and girl, and indeed every person in this country, can live a more full and decent life because Ruth Bader Ginsburg broke down gender barriers.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not wait for Ginsburg’s body to get cold before he announced that he was ready to replace her. I’m sickened but not surprised. The senior Senator from Kentucky has spent his career undermining the progress towards fairness that was Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life work. Now, with less than two months to go until the Presidential election, McConnell hopes to place another reactionary Justice on the Court who might undermine the Ginsburg legacy for decades to come.
As always, McConnell’s maneuvers are a master class in power politics, reminding us that elections have consequences.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg died just as the first night of Rosh Hashanah was starting. For Jews, this New Year holiday is a typically a time of joy, celebrated with family. I’ve read that there is a tradition that death on Rosh Hashanah is reserved by God only for those who are especially righteous and just. Even so, it’s bittersweet to lose such a giant of justice at the start of the High Holidays. To our Jewish union member and friends, I send love and best wishes for a sweet year to come.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg reminds all of us in the labor movement of the lessons of our struggle. We must fight for what is right, even when injustice is all around and the odds seem stacked against us. Hard work, strategic thinking, and tenacity can make the difference. Ordinary people from humble origins can become extraordinary by taking a stand.
If there ever was a time in our country to take a stand, that time is now. The future of our democracy hangs in the balance. What we do matters. Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we are called to play our part and move our world towards what is right.
Matthew W. Yarnell, President, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania