We had just finished our first dinner together as a family since before the pandemic—both of my daughters, my son-in-law, and my grandsons. It was a wonderful meal—lots of laughter and food and candles and blessings. Apples and honey and challah and wine. We were cleaning up in the kitchen, the kids were playing, and suddenly I heard my son-in-law gasp. He stood up, ashen, and whispered, “Ginsburg died.”
All I could say was, “Oh, no.” Then two seconds later. “Oh, no.” It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. It felt like a personal loss, the death of someone I knew and loved, not the death of someone famous I’d never actually met. We were all stunned. Even my grandsons, ages six and ten, knew who Ruth Bader Ginsburg was and knew how important she was.
We talked about her and her life, and then the next night we all watched “On the Basis of Sex,” a dramatized version of her early career and one of the first legal cases that established that treating men and women differently solely on the basis of gender was unconstitutional. When the movie ended with the shot of the real RBG standing on the steps of the Supreme Court, I cried. She was a hero, a role model, someone who changed the world I lived in and thus changed the course of my life.
She was born in Brooklyn, where my mother was born and raised and where my grandsons now live. Like my mother, she was Jewish and the daughter of an immigrant father and a mother who was first-generation American-born. She went to Cornell University and then was one of only nine women in her class at Harvard Law School in the 1950s. Despite the discrimination she faced there and the skepticism many had about women becoming lawyers, she rose to the top of her class.
Without Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others like her, I never would have dreamed of becoming a lawyer. When I was in high school and the women’s movement was just brewing, I thought girls could only grow up to be three things—a mommy, a nurse, or a teacher. I recall a heated debate with a classmate who was already more awake to the need for change than I where I took the position that a woman had to choose between a career or a family. She couldn’t have both.
All that changed in the four years I was in college, the years that RBG began litigating cases against sex discrimination. By my senior year I’d decided I wanted to go to law school. I wanted to have it all—a family and a career. When I arrived at Harvard Law School in 1975, there were more than ten times the number of women in my entering class than had been there when Ginsburg enrolled. We were still only 20% of the class, but at least there were more of us—thanks to the work of Ginsburg and others. Professors could no longer outwardly treat us as lesser beings than our male classmates, although some may have still thought that way. Without RBG and others, that never would have happened.
When RBG graduated from law school in the late 1950s, she could not get a law firm to hire her despite being on law review and at the top of her class. Twenty years later when I graduated from law school, there were still few women partners in law firms (and none at the firm where I was hired), but firms were hiring women. Four years later, my firm had two women who were partners (out of over forty partners overall), and almost half of new hires were women.
When I left practice in 1982 to become a law professor, there were only two other women on the faculty of twenty-five; there were many students who expected their professors to be men, preferably older white men in suits, not a young woman with a young child and another on the way. But things changed over the years. More and more women were becoming lawyers, and more were becoming law professors. One of those law professors was Jane Ginsburg, Ruth’s daughter, and I first felt a real personal connection to RBG when I adopted two of her daughter Jane’s casebooks—one on copyright law, one on trademark law—to teach my courses in those subjects. When I retired from law teaching in 2014, women made up a majority of those on the faculty at my school. We had seen a momentous shift in thirty-two years.
So much changed from the time I was in high school and could only dream of becoming either a mother or a nurse or a teacher. So much changed from the day I entered law school until the day I retired almost forty years later. Women went from being outsiders in the legal profession to being a majority of those enrolled in law school and prominent in the profession, though even today there are still too few women partners in big law firms and too much discrimination generally against women in society.
I feel so deeply grateful to Ruth Bader Ginsburg for all these changes. When she was named by Bill Clinton to the US Supreme Court in 1993, I felt as if someone I knew had made it to the highest court in the land. A Jewish woman was on the Supreme Court. Someone who grew up in the time and place in which my mother had grown up. Someone who had had both children and a career. Someone who shared my background and my values. She was only the second woman to be named to the court. She changed it forever. She changed me and my life and my world even before I knew her name.
I am forever indebted to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. No wonder I feel her loss so personally. She was a blessing to every little girl growing up today, to every woman searching for a meaningful life, and to every woman of my generation who benefited from everything she did. She was a blessing to all people whose rights have been denied, who have faced discrimination, or who simply want to see justice and fairness in our society.
May her memory be a blessing forever. May we carry on her legacy.
Two other bloggers wrote posts about Ginsburg that touched me. I recommend them both. You can find them here (“The Heavens Opened for RBG” at Zicharanot), discussing another personal reaction to her death, and here (“Ruth Bader Ginburg, Rest in Power” at wmtc), discussing her opinions on the Supreme Court and their significance. There have been, of course, many other tributes and obituaries published that describe her life and her career and her impact on the law and on society.