By Shruti Mishra, Aditi Pradhan and Natasha Latiff
The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), the second woman to serve as a US Supreme Court justice, has undeniably created a void worldwide for the defenders who have studied her. She lived a life championing human rights and gender justice. She was a trailblazer, a voice of change and a source of power who left behind a body of work which is not near its end and one which we have to continue to build on.
Born in 1933, RBG was of Ukrainian and Austrian descent. She was 1 of only 9 women students in her cohort to read law at Harvard Law School, admonished by the Dean for “taking a man’s place”. She excelled, joining the Harvard law review and trudging through law school whilst caring for her newborn and an ailing cancer-stricken husband. Despite coming in first in class, law firms flinched at the notion of hiring her, a woman, which led her down a different path to become Columbia Law School’s first female tenured professor. In 1972, she co-founded the Women Rights Project at American Civil Liberties Union, fighting more than 300 gender discrimination cases between 1973 to 1974.
She worked tirelessly to eradicate the functional difference between men and women and her support for LGBTQIA+ as well as minority rights is plain to see. Amongst her most notable accomplishments, she successfully argued as amicus in Frontiero v. Richardson (1973) where the Supreme Court decided that service benefits and compensation could not solely be based on gender.
Later as a part of the Bench, in U.S v. Virginia (1996), writing for the majority, she said that “generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.”
The landmark decision led to women being able to join the Virginia Military Institute which until then was the last remaining all-male public undergraduate college/university. Standing up to VMI’s heritage as a tough all boys’ academy, she assured VMI that in time and with patience, they would one day be proud of their female cadets. She recalled this 20 years later during her address to VMI’s co-ed group of female and male cadets.
Despite being a voice for progressive causes throughout her career, which spanned over 60 years, her silence on the human rights of oppressed Palestinians was seen as silent complicity and cause selectivity. Her statement on Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling in protest during the national anthem as “dumb” and “stupid”, was a profound failure to appreciate the symbolic significance of his protest, and, in the specific context of the Black Lives Matter movement, the historic vilification and violent policing of Black protests on the streets, making kneeling safer and certainly less “dumb” or “stupid”.
“Kneeling is both an act of defiance and resistance, but also of reverence, of mourning, but also honoring lives lost”, said Chad Williams, the chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University, in a New York Times article titled ‘Kneeling, Fiercely Debated in the N.F.L., Resonates in Protests’.
RBG, who exemplifies the power, courage and indomitable determination of the women’s movement is no less of a hero for her remarks, but more so a human, who even amongst the best of us can unconsciously tower from our position and exhibit callousness in times of calamity.
Fundamentally, she refused to buy into complacency that her society was finally free and equal and remained wary of discrimination’s creeping encroachment into the law. In the voting rights case of Shelby County v Holder, she objected to the majority view that voting measures of 50 years ago which disproportionately affected Black and poor communities were no longer necessary because the “old disease” of 200-years of slavery is over and “things have changed”. In her dissent, she described how Black and Latino voters were being purged by the redrawing of congressional districts and moving of polling booths from predominantly Black neighbourhoods to white neighborhoods. “Just as buildings in California have a greater need to be earthquake proofed, places where there is greater racial polarization in voting have a greater need for prophylactic measures to prevent purposeful race discrimination,” she wrote. Throwing out a law to safeguard rights “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” RGB had foresight and she was right. In the aftermath of the Shelby Case, a slew of changes kicked off, cutting back on voting hours and closing polling booths in Black neighbourhoods. In one case, a lower federal court of North Carolina had to strike down some of the changes which it described as “targeting African Americans with surgical precision”.
RBG defied the enduring complacency of the notion that all we need to do is to treat all people equally. Her work made it imperative if not urgent that in the service of equality, people of disproportionate inequality must be treated differently.
RBG’s work was beyond her time. She described her dissents as “appealing to the intelligence of a future day.”
Indeed, the work of human rights advocates is to appeal to a bigger vision of a future generation, by laying before it, new notions of a less disparate world — and what that means for the powers that need to be revoked, the privileges that need to be shared, and, the dialogue that we must have to get there. Between the corridors of the court to time-yielding zoom calls, we must find space to workshop and battle ideas with our colleagues and rivalries alike. We must break that enduring complacency and find crevices of inequalities to fill, however slight they may be.
RBG’s life is a mirror of how each of our lives will unfold over the next few decades. Her life reminds us that our work may not yield immediate results, the trajectory of our successes may not always be smooth and we may zig zag and at times even regress, but the staying power for a vision of an alternate equal world is what will bend the moral arc of justice. RBG’s life embodied this, quoting Martin Luther King in her dissent in Shelby: “the arc of the moral universe is long…but it bends toward justice, if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”