Ideals are like the stars: we never reach them, but, like the mariners of the sea, we chart our course by them. ~ Carl Schurz
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s heroic status extended from her professional life into the personal. Incomparably gifted yet utterly relatable, her visible human fragility gave her the power to speak to generations of women and girls regardless of whether they identified as feminists or not. The older generation admired her ladylike humility and feminine sensibility, including her obvious affection and respect of her in-laws. RBG frequently shared how she used her mother-in-law’s advice to be a little deaf to unkind words, and her father-in-law’s advice on balancing marriage, motherhood, and career by just taking it one step-at-a-time.
But younger generations found her a role model for defying stereotypes and redefining what it meant to be a woman, a mother, and a wife. RBG openly acknowledged her inability to cook without ever saying that women did not belong in the kitchen. And, without criticizing the institution of marriage as patriarchal, she modeled a marriage built on intellectual respect and romantic love, showing her young admirers that the two ought to be inseparable. Instead of taking offense that women’s wardrobe choices garner public attention in a way that men’s don’t, RBG incorporated iconic “dissent” collars to amplify her feminist message. She assumed the mantle of her unsolicited celebrity so graciously in her later years that she helped more than one generation reimagine a life in the law as simultaneously fulfilling and cool.
Equally awe-inspiring is her resilience. Ginsburg endured the death of her sister as an infant and her mother on her high school graduation, nursed her husband through cancer, and survived several bouts of cancer and other serious illnesses herself. We relate to RBG at so many levels; we see ourselves overcoming fear to claim our positions or advocate for equality and justice. When we saw RBG praise and thank heroes such as her mother, her parents-in-law, her husband, her professor at Cornell (Vladimir Nabokov), and her ACLU colleagues (Pauli Murray and Dorothy Kenyon), we realize that she needed help, support, and mentorship along the way.
How can RBG not live on if we, and hopefully future generations of lawyers, continue to chart our course by her example? That need not mean enduring every personal tragedy with dignity; overcoming overt employment discrimination despite being valedictorian; writing the definitive textbook on sex discrimination; co-founding a path-breaking ACLU project; marrying your staunchest admirer for love and all the right reasons; surviving and nursing others through multiple bouts of cancer; ascending to the male-dominated D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court; and making it hip to be a petite, bespectacled legal nerd. Rather, honoring RBG’s legacy could just mean turning a deaf ear to unkind words or criticism, as RBG confessed to doing personally and professionally; choosing persuasion over accusation in our speech and writing, as RBG did skillfully from at least the eighth grade; and, striving for moderation even in our impassioned efforts to create lasting change in our chosen sphere, as RBG modeled in her thoughtful appellate advocacy and careful judicial dissents.
For me, the way to carry on RBG’s legacy was recently brought home to me, quite literally, by our nine-year old daughter. More concerned with perfecting her gymnastics front flips and pulling off a soccer hat trick than reflecting on equality under the law, the youngest member of our family was nevertheless visibly moved by a KPBS film tribute to RBG that our family recently watched. After being quiet through dinner that night, our daughter declared, “I wish we could dissent from someone’s death. If so, I dissent from RBG’s death.” It made me smile, cry, and marvel at her elegant ability to simplify how I could transform my unavailing grief for someone I mistakenly thought never touched my life tangibly into action. As someone who now aspires to persuade, oppose, and make tactical decisions as an advocate by asking what my hero, RBG, would do, I proudly join in my daughter’s dissent.
Rupa G. Singh is a certified appellate specialist at Niddrie Addams Fuller Singh LLP, a past vice-president of Lawyers Club of San Diego, happily married to her intellectual equal, and the proud mother of three RBG groupies.