Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died of pancreatic cancer at age 87 on Friday, made the impossible look easy.
One of a handful of women at Harvard Law School, she earned a spot on Law Review and graduated from Columbia at the top of her class, despite spending a year nursing her husband through cancer while caring for her young daughter. She built a career as a distinguished attorney and professor when top law firms and judges refused to hire “a woman, a mother, and a Jew.”
As an advocate, she persuaded a court that a decade earlier had denied women the right to a jury of their peers to recognize equal protection of the laws regardless of sex. She won nearly unanimous Senate confirmation to the Supreme Court despite her long record of feminist advocacy and unapologetic defense of abortion rights. She overcame three kinds of cancer over two decades to serve 40 years on the federal bench, including more than a quarter-century on the Supreme Court. She never relinquished her ideal of collegiality, even as the nation’s politics fractured into bitter partisanship.
But what made Justice Ginsburg a leader and jurist for the ages is not these individual accomplishments, remarkable as they are. Rather, it was her fight to make the paths she forged accessible to all Americans.
Ginsburg knew her own achievements required access to the university education denied to her mother, so she worked to open the doors of higher education to young people who lack the racial and economic privilege her own generation of white Jewish women began to enjoy.
Ginsburg often said that her ability to combine a pathbreaking legal career with a rich family life depended upon the steadfast support of a financially and emotionally secure husband who nurtured his wife’s ambitions, cooked gourmet meals, and participated in caring for their children. But she also understood that most families lacked the economic means to afford a comfortable home and domestic help, and relied on social insurance in hard times and old age. Ginsburg and her colleagues persuaded the Supreme Court that when the government gave housing, employment, and survivors’ benefits to wives and not husbands, they devalued women’s work outside the home and men’s caregiving labor within it.
Ginsburg famously hid her second pregnancy from her employer by wearing loose clothing. But she also recognized that most working women could not avoid discrimination based on pregnancy and caregiving responsibilities. She devoted her career as an advocate to battling workplace discrimination, occupational segregation, pay inequities, and exclusion. As a judge, she championed plaintiffs like Lilly Ledbetter, who lacked a remedy for the pay discrimination she faced as one of the only female managers at her Goodyear Tire plant, and Maetta Vance, a food service worker who suffered harassment at work because she was Black.
Ginsburg hardly missed a day of work during her bouts with colon, pancreatic, and lung cancer. But she understood that her survival depended more on access to first-rate health care than on individual willpower, and she resisted attempts to gut the Affordable Care Act. As a person of means, Ginsburg never lacked access to contraception and reproductive health care, but she appreciated how crucial those rights are to human flourishing. As an advocate, she fought for women like Capt. Susan Struck, discharged from the military for becoming pregnant; as a judge, she defended reproductive freedom as integral to women’s equal citizenship.
Ginsburg heeded her mother’s advice to always “be a lady”; conforming to some conventional norms of femininity eased her way. But she also stood on the shoulders of Pauli Murray, the African American attorney and activist who helped ensure that the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited sex-based discrimination and who pioneered feminist legal theories Ginsburg later brought to the Supreme Court. Murray’s race, fluid gender identity, and intimate partnerships with women put a career like Ginsburg’s out of reach. As a justice, Ginsburg helped to lower the barriers Americans face to living, loving, and working because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Ginsburg’s appointments to the bench by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton relied upon women’s increasing assertion of political power at the ballot box; her powerful dissents underscored how the court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and approval of voter suppression efforts and of racial and partisan gerrymandering threaten the rights of citizens of color and the very foundations of democratic government.
Ginsburg left us at a moment that feels impossible. As a global pandemic amplifies entrenched inequality and injustice, existential threats to democracy loom. Ginsburg’s deathbed wish, that a new president appoint her replacement, is only the beginning of the challenges that lie ahead.
The nation’s ability to combat inequality and injustice; to provide educational, employment, and economic opportunity; to protect the environment and combat climate change; to provide necessary health care and a social safety net; to safeguard the right to vote and fight political corruption; even to preserve democracy itself — hang in the balance.
To honor Justice Ginsburg’s legacy, we, too, must accomplish what may seem impossible, so that others might enjoy the world of possibilities she made.
Serena Mayeri is a professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, and the author of “Reasoning from Race: Feminism, Law, and the Civil Rights Revolution.”