The Loss of RBG Is an Ending — and a New Beginning

The best way to honor the memory of Supreme Court Justice and feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg is to never, ever give up.
By Dahlia Lithwick
Sep 24, 2020 @ 8:30 am

If you are anything like me, you have experienced the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a body blow. The loss of one of the most prominent and impactful female leaders the world has known is immeasurable. It’s tempting to pull the covers over our heads and eat frosting right out of the tube, but as a legal scholar and court watcher for the past two decades, I want you to know that if the sudden passing of the Notorious RBG has you feeling hopeless and powerless, then you haven’t been paying attention.  

A kind of superhero who first invented and then became the guardian of female equality under the law, RBG was the second woman elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Over the course of almost three decades, she became an influential senior justice who consistently spoke truth to power. In a nation currently starved for models of authority, we revere her as much for being the toughest lady in America as for being an 87-year-old grandmother in a fancy lace collar. She was all these things, and, thankfully, she didn’t stay in her lane, so the rest of us don’t have to either. 

Perhaps her most endearing quality was her ability to fight in the face of really bad odds. She was a brilliant student who, while attending Harvard Law School in the ’50s, was one of nine women in a class of more than 500 men. There, the professors belittled her, and some of her male classmates nicknamed her Bitch. (Her response? “Better bitch than mouse.”) She famously had to explain to the dean why she had the right to be there when he not so subtly suggested that the slot “could have gone to a man.” After her first oral argument before the Supreme Court, in 1973, one of the (all-male) justices scrawled “C+” and “very precise female” in his notes about her performance. 

At that time, Ginsburg was the co-founder and general counsel for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. While in that role, she won five of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court, regularly explaining to a panel of all-male judges that a legal regime that treated women as fragile flowers was not respectful of females, but actually diminished them. When asked about the advocacy work of getting men to understand that gender bias in the law didn’t put women on a pedestal but rather in a cage, Ginsburg compared it to being a “kindergarten teacher.” 

Ginsburg in Italy while on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1977.
Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

Once she was confirmed to the Supreme Court, in 1993, RBG used her prodigious intellect to teach, listen, cajole. The Notorious One, even at her most authoritative, was using precisely the skills, tricks, and strategies most women deploy every day. Whether she was imploring male judges to give women the legal right to be treated as primary breadwinners or penning her most stinging dissents in the last 15 years — excoriating her male colleagues over equal pay for Lilly Ledbetter, reproductive freedom, the right to employer-provided contraception, or the right to vote — Ginsburg rarely, if ever, approached the law from a place of genuine power. She approached it, more often than not, as an outsider, demanding more equality, broader definitions of citizenship, and a more expansive view of freedom. 

And that was her real magic: chipping away at the machinery of authority until it was allocated more justly, among all of us. She did so with a reverence for her foremothers’ fights. Ginsburg never stopped saying that she stood on the shoulders of the women who came before her — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, and Susan B. Anthony. Which is why when young women, especially law students, lined up to get a selfie, she never turned them down. 

In an era in which “I alone can fix it” became the definition of male influence, Ginsburg’s power and authority came from the opposite impulse, the reminder that “all of you working together can fix it.” That command formed the spine of her early legal advocacy and her later jurisprudence — and near the end of her career, as women lost ground at the Supreme Court, that message shot through her dissents. They were bat signals, sent out in the dark of night, inspiring women to gather, to organize, to lobby Congress for equal pay, or to stand in their statehouses demanding access to reproductive care. That may not be the classic American tale of “Great Man Meets World and Crushes It.” But it’s an extraordinary feminist story of “Brave Woman Inspires Us to Fight Together.” That was her story, and it still should be ours now that she has gone.

It took Donald Trump less than a week to announce RBG’s replacement: Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative judge who could potentially dismantle some of the very freedoms Ginsburg battled for her whole life. It’s easy to feel erased, but don’t. We can step up and pick up the fight in RBG’s honor. We can become the scrappy outsiders who — against crazy long odds — continue to demand a better, more generous, more perfect constitutional union for everyone, no matter who appears to be in charge. We can make a plan to vote and help others make a plan, we can volunteer to work the polls, we can send a text. We can write letters and call our representatives. We can be bigger and louder and do more. She would expect nothing less. 

A version of this story will appear in InStyle's November issue on newsstands Oct. 23.