The news on Friday night that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed away after a heroic battle with pancreatic cancer hit us and millions of Americans hard. While the timing and circumstance of the 2020 elections added an additional, confusing layer to our collective grief, we can’t allow the politicization of her death to force us to lose sight of what made us feel so connected to the woman born Joan Ruth Bader on March 15th, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York.
She would go on to embody everything Americans look for in a Supreme Court Justice, and her immaculate work and sheer determination would inspire generations of women and girls to reach for new heights.
Her passing, at age 87, is still somewhat incomprehensible because of how inconceivable it is that one person could accomplish so much in one lifetime.
By the time she entered Harvard Law School in the mid-’50s, she had married and begun going by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Presaging all the ground she would break in her life, she was one of only 9 women to attend in a class of 500 men.
Despite being a brilliant and qualified attorney, Bader Ginsburg found it difficult to find jobs after graduation and eventually spent time in academia before transitioning into litigation and advocacy, founding the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and arguing many of the most important gender discrimination cases of her time.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, making Bader Ginsburg one of the highest-ranking women ever appointed to the federal judiciary. She would serve with passion and distinction, and in 1993 President Bill Clinton agreed to interview her for a vacancy on the highest court in the land.
Bader Ginsburg wasn’t expected to earn the nomination, but as she had her entire life she seized on the opportunity when it knocked and proceeded to blow her sitdown with Clinton out of the water, proving yet again that if women can just have a chance to get in the room they will prove they deserve a place at the table.
For the final 27 years of her trailblazing life, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg continued to meet her own exacting standards and helped define what it means to serve your country and the constitution for a new generation of lawyers and scholars. She dedicated the final years of her life to defending our ideals and our Constitution from constant attacks.
That she was able to do all of this while not just once battling cancer, but fighting the disease on five different occasions, is nothing short of miraculous. Her life’s work, on the highest court in the land, always remained central to her fighting spirit, and even after enduring a lifetime of tragedy and loss inflicted on members of her family by the illness, never lost her eternal optimism for our country and for our people.
Her fighting spirit and indefatigable grace are stark reminders of what has for generations embodied the American spirit. In life, and in death, she reminds us of who we can be if we’re willing to give our lives to something greater than ourselves.
As painful as it is to lose her, it was in some way fitting that she would leave this world on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
According to Jewish tradition, a person who passes on Rosh Hashanah is called a tzaddik, or person of great righteousness. And so it is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg leaves this world as she lived in this world, her righteousness an example for all of us to hold dear.
May her memory be a revolution.
Photo: Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images