RBG’s passing has hit me hard.
She’s someone I admired for so many reasons. She was a women’s rights champion, an indefatigable litigator who radically changed the way women were treated in the workplace and society at large. She was the second woman to ever serve on the US Supreme Court, where she wrote the majority opinion that prevented women from being excluded from publicly-funded institutions (VMI). More recently as the bench grew more conservative, she increasingly wrote scathing dissenting opinions on Voting Rights (Shelby County) and employment discrimination (Ledbetter) that showed even as the underdog, there is always hope and a pathway for a better future.
But what I respected most about her was her strong personal character. As a 1L law student working at the Georgetown Women’s Law & Public Policy Fellowship Program, I got to tag along with a small group of female law fellows to meet her at the Supreme Court.
She offered us some tea cookies that Marty had baked that morning. She entertained us with a story about how when her son kept getting called into the principal’s office and she’d be called to pick him up, she finally told the school to call her husband the next time and suddenly there were no more calls from the school.
What on the surface seemed like small pleasantries were in reality profound statements; those cookies showed the support of her husband, the (in)famous tax professor Martin Ginsburg who put his professional aspirations secondary to his wife to get her into the Supreme Court. The story about her child’s school reflects a larger issue around how gender inequity plays out in the workplace, where working moms are still expected to “keep up” with their male counterparts without acknowledgment or concessions made for the fact that mothers still carry the lion’s share of child care responsibilities in this country.
Despite her larger than life persona that included a pop culture tagline of “I dissent,” her personal qualities showed a physically diminutive, soft-spoken woman, who often followed her own advice to be “a little deaf,” when a thoughtless or unkind word was spoken. RBG roared in a whisper, which forced us all to lean in closer and listen harder.
I also deeply admired her life-long friendship with her bestie, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. I used to walk the mile from my law school dorm to the Supreme Court to attend some of the oral arguments (because I was geeky like that).
Scalia was consistently the most vocal on the bench with his words and body language — when he wasn’t peppering the attorney giving oral arguments with questions or comments, he would swivel his chair so you’d be literally looking at his back as he remained silent. He was conservative and I disagreed with almost every one of his positions — on abortion, LGBT rights, immigrant rights, affirmative action, gun rights, the environment, voting rights, and equal protection laws.
When I learned about his deep friendship with Ginsburg, I felt at first a little offended that she would “backstab” the movement by associating with him. But as I got older, I realized what a testament it was to her character (and to his) that she could respect and befriend someone with such diametrically different views. They focused on their commonalities — a deep love of opera, travel, and most importantly, a respect for the Constitution.
I had a roommate once who had opposite views from me on abortion, but we could march together to abolish the death penalty. Her reasoning was life is life; Whether it’s at the early stage or late stages, she thought it deserved protection. I didn’t share that view, but I could respect her for her convictions. And it didn’t stop us from enjoying our jogs or half-off pints at the local bar on Tuesdays.
In this day and age, I feel so discouraged sometimes by how divided our country is. Last week 164 members of Congress voted against a resolution that condemned anti-Asian discrimination in the time of COVID. Why are we so polarized these days that politicians can’t even say it’s wrong to show hatred against Asians due to COVID? I wish something as basic as saying it’s not nice to treat others poorly because of race wasn’t a bipartisan or ideological value — this should be a matter of good character.
I hope my kids will grow up to be like RBG — passionate about their views, deeply committed to making the world a better place, incredibly hard-working, and able to see the humanity in people with whom they disagree.
Actually, I hope I can grow up to be like this too. #RIP RBG.
By: Connie Chung Joe, CEO