1994. I was a freshman, settling in to my second semester. It was an optimistic time. I felt at home in college, Hillary Clinton was going to make sure everyone in the US had access to healthcare before I graduated from college—Time had even published a mockup of the national health insurance card—and women were ascendant, something that made choosing a women’s college seem like a brilliant decision.
My government professor had everyone pick a special project for the semester. Mine was to keep up with the doings of the Supreme Court. There was some end-of-semester assignment, now long forgotten, but I what I do remember is that I needed to read the New York Times and other publications like Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, to keep track of what SCOTUS was up to.
I liked this assignment. In my picture of my impending adulthood, I saw myself always making time to sit down and scour the news, keeping up on current events, informing myself about the issues, and being able to talk intelligently about not only the Supreme Court but also state and local issues. I would for-sure be a person who always had a subscription to not only my local newspaper, but also the New York Times.
I loved following the Supreme Court. Rehnquist, Blackmun, Stevens, O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg. Blackmun was the key to the reason I’d grown up in a country where abortion was legal. He would retire that year, making way for Breyer, and that court would stay the same until 2005, when I was well into my imagined adulthood with no national healthcare and no subscription to the New York Times.
One of the things I loved about the Supreme Court was that it stood above politics. We said that all the time then, and talked about how the Founding Fathers (we used that term without much comment) designed the Constitution so that the Supreme Court was above the fray. The justices were appointed for life! They often went off in different directions than the presidents who appointed them!
And Ruth Bader Ginsburg was my favorite. A tiny woman with a big brain who wore lace collars on her robe, I took her nomination as one of the many signs the country was shaking off the conservative shackles I’d come of age chafing under. Her appointment and confirmation meant we were moving to a brighter future where women could finally fulfill their potential, and the idiotic notions of supply-side economics and shaming people who needed help were finally behind us.
It was so important to have more than one woman on the court. I’d watched with worry as several big decisions about abortion rolled through the court in the 80s and early 90s. It seemed ridiculous that eight men could properly put the importance of access to that procedure in context. Ginsburg was smart, and as I listed to Mara Liasson’s NPR stories about the Supreme Court I always held still to make sure I could feel the weight of Ginsburg’s words.
And now it’s many decades later, and I woke to the news she is gone. I’m no longer a college freshman optimistic about my future. I watched a talented, competent woman with clear platforms and tons of experience lose an election to a man with no plans, no respect for the people he supposedly serves, and no real desire to do the job. The healthcare system is a mess, the problems of systemic racism seem insurmountable, and the Supreme Court is not far above the fray, it’s right in swamp throwing elbows with the other two branches. My life is not what I planned it to be; it’s far from the rosy picture my nineteen-year-old-self envisioned.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life didn’t run its course as she planned. When I think of her, graduating at the top of her class, taking the hits of overt sexism, and interviewing with law firm after law firm, it’s hard to think about. She was sidelined, like so many women and people of color, and we lost years of her (and so many others) contributions.
But she kept going. She stayed with her love of the law however she could and eventually was appointed to a position only 113 other people have ever held, becoming one of six people to ever serve on the court who weren’t white men.
I’m pretty sure Ginsburg was set to retire once Clinton was elected president. She was already very old, and her health was turning. Her husband had died, and she had served for more than two decades. But when the election fell out a different way, she just kept going.
I was going to have a lazy day today. I’m tired from more than a week of wildfire smoke, worn down by this pandemic, beyond feeling anything about the current administration, sick at the amount of hatred and willful ignorance displayed by so many, and forever worried about how my health will affect my finances, now and in the future. The best course of action seemed to be to sink into my bed and my couch and let this day pass.
But Ruth Bader Ginsburg is dead, and she worked so long against such long odds for so many things that have made my life better, either overtly or tangentially. So I’m going to make my bed and get dressed. What I do today won’t matter much in the world, but it will matter in my life. If I don’t take care of my needs, I can’t do the work I need to do to make a better life for myself and my community. Today is the first day without RBG and it’s another one of the many days in my life where what I do makes a difference.
I thank Ginsburg for her service. And I will do my best to make my own service ongoing.