“Women’s rights are an essential part of the overall human rights agenda, trained on the equal dignity and ability to live in freedom all people should enjoy.”
—Ruth Bader Ginsburg
This weekend began with crushing news of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dedicated herself to the cause of equality for all Americans. She worked tirelessly on behalf of women’s legal rights, a struggle that has benefited our daughters and our sons, and which broadly affected all aspects of women’s lives, including reproductive rights, workplace discrimination, class-action law, and criminal justice.
Justice Ginsburg was known for her unmatched legal acuity, her tireless work ethic, and her unwavering vision of the translation of equal rights to the reality of people’s lives. Her colleagues and clerks unfailingly commented on Ginsburg’s commitment to mentorship, her high expectations for her staff and even higher benchmarks for herself, her counsel to “be strong and to stand behind [their] work.” Justice Ginsburg got to know her employees’ families, offered innumerable people support, and lived her values of equality through the partnership with her husband, Martin.
I remember clearly when President Clinton appointed Justice Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, as I was just beginning my doctoral studies. While she was not the first female Supreme Court Justice, her ascension represented the breaking of a glass ceiling (I also naively imagined by the time I’d finish my Ph.D., the challenges women face juggling work and family would be ironed out!). But despite coming to terms with the too-slow rate of positive change, I did find myself inspired by and replicating some of her virtues: hard work, a life partner who would support my ambition and not be threatened by my success, and a commitment to mentorship and to service.
It’s hard to articulate the ways in which trailblazers like Ginsburg affect us, especially so soon after her death. My emotional bandwidth feels stretched pretty thin these days, so it was both bittersweet and a little painful to read all the obituaries and tributes to Justice Ginsburg. I did find some respite in revisiting a piece she wrote for The New York Times four years ago, shortly after I began as Head of School, that described her “advice for living.” In it, Ginsburg reminds us of the meager representation of women in the legal profession when she entered law school in 1956 (women represented fewer than 3% of legal professionals and only one judge on a federal appellate court).
Those are some intimidating odds. Yet, Justice Ginsburg pressed on—knowing that her struggle and eventual success was less about her and more about creating pathways for others. What aided Justice Ginsburg’s ability to, as she states in The New York Times piece, “take part in the effort to free our daughters and sons to achieve whatever their talents equipped them to accomplish, with no artificial barriers blocking their way?”
- Her mother, who modeled the pleasures of reading and urged Ginsburg to be “independent,” able to fend for herself.
- Teachers, who influenced and supported her, and who helped shape the way she read and wrote.
- Her mother-in-law, who sagely counseled, “In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf,” advice that Ginsburg extended to every workplace she inhabited. As Ginsburg put it, “reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”
- Her father-in-law, who when Ginsburg was struggling to decide whether she could attend law school and raise her infant daughter, expressed faith that she and Martin would find a way for her to do both. In the end, Ginsburg reflected that it was the balance of work and family that offered her a “sense of proportion” with each providing her with a sense of “respite” from the other.
- Her husband, Martin, whose support and advocacy of Ginsburg was remarkable, especially considering the time in which they launched their dual-career marriage, 1954.
- Her ability to reason with, listen to, and find respect for her colleagues on the court. Her relationship with Justice Scalia demonstrated how they could embrace different opinions and welcome debate. As Scalia’s son put it, “they believed that what they were doing—arriving at their own opinions thoughtfully and advancing them vigorously—was essential to the national good. With less debate, their friendship would have been diminished, and so, they believed, would our democracy.”
Of course, Justice Ginsburg was not blind to the struggles that women still face to this day: poverty, unequal wages, workplaces that do not accommodate women’s families, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. But she was hopeful—no, she was certain—that progress would continue.
When famously asked when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg’s response was “when there are nine,” reasoning that, “for most of our country’s history, there were only men on the high court bench.”
As many have noted, Justice Ginsburg died on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Rosh Hashanah marks a period of reflection, when Jews look back and take stock of the previous year and look ahead to prepare for how they want to live, emphasizing actions that will manifest justice, sustainability, and peace for all.
This is how Justice Ginsburg lived her life, working steadfastly, confidently, yet humbly to create a more just world for people she would never personally know, without any expectation of praise or renown. I hope we will all take stock in how we can carry Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s work forward to creating a more just world—one that perpetuates equality and access, truly ensuring liberty and justice for all.
Head of School