In the weeks since Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, the media has quickly turned to the upcoming US elections, President Trump’s nomination of her successor to the Supreme Court of the United States, and now with news of President Trump being diagnosed with Coronavirus – controversy over whether the nomination caused a “super-spreader” event.
The world in which we live is a turbulent and fast-paced one. 2020 is particularly so. Catastrophic bushfires linked to climate change, the global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death have highlighted the delicate seams within society and politics, seams pulling apart from different directions. It is easy, at this historical moment, to see a world on fire. Humming as a background note of ever-present anxiety are questions of our collective survival and the threat of annihilation – whether from inexorable forces of nature or from geo-political gamesmanship.
Time marches ever forward, and ready, willing, or not, we are heading toward an uncertain future.
It is precisely at such a moment, however, that the notion of historical time can give us hope and inspiration and the act of looking into the past can be of most assistance as we look to and make choices about the future.
This, I suggest, is one of the many lessons learned from honouring Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and legacy.
Picture this. Slight of frame, still, yet powerful and with gravitas, the woman who would become the second woman in history to sit on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States stands next to a famous president and before an expectant crowd.
The occasion is the public announcement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nomination to the highest echelon of judicial office. The then president is Bill Clinton. And on that day, standing before the press and public in the White House Rose Garden, Ruth Bader Ginsburg looked to the future and the potential and hope for all she could be (and, eventually, would be) by gazing into the past.
The president’s eyes tear and the crowd shifts as Bader Ginsburg accepts her nomination with these words:
‘I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons.’
The “she”, was Bader Ginsburg’s late mother. It is instructive that on the eve of her historic moment, Bader Ginsburg did not only look to her future as Justice of the Supreme Court, seeing the work still to be done in furthering a just and equitable society. Rather, she looked Janus-faced at the past and the future. Looking backward, to the life of her mother, she saw how much injustice lay behind her. She paid tribute to the woman who secretly saved money for her daughter’s college education from the small “housewife allowance” given to her by her husband. She remembered a woman who, despite her own intellect and ambition, could not go to college. She was instead sent to work in a garment factory to make the sacrifice for her brother, Bader Ginsburg’s uncle, to attend Cornell University.
It is this sense of orientation to past injustice and agency and aspiration for future change that would characterise Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s most stirring judicial rulings at the Supreme Court.
In one of her earlier judgments, US v Virginia, for which she wrote the court’s 7-1 majority opinion, Bader Ginsburg rejected the state of Virginia’s argument that women were inherently unsuited for the Virginia Military Institute’s all-male program, finding that the gender-exclusive admissions policy was in violation of the US Constitution.
As Bader Ginsburg put it, ‘reliance on overbroad generalizations … estimates about the way most men or most women are, will not suffice to deny opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.’
In so ruling, Bader Ginsburg highlighted the way historical assumptions about gender held women back and could no longer be justified, entrenching for the future, gender equality as a constitutional right.
A few years later, Bader Ginsburg would again denounce the pernicious nature of unjust assumptions and remove yet another barrier to recognise rights for those whose rights had been historically compromised. In Olmstead v LC, Bader Ginsburg wrote the court’s 6-3 majority opinion, a landmark ruling that reinforced the rights of people with disabilities to live integrated into their communities.
Ruling that the state of Georgia had violated the ‘integration mandate’ under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Bader Ginsburg wrote of how ‘unjustified isolation’ of disabled persons in psychiatric care ‘perpetuates assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life.’
In the final years of her life, Bader Ginsburg, who was a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights, would be part of the 5-4 majority in Obergefell v Hodges, a historic ruling that granted same-sex couples the right to marry in all 50 states of the USA.
It is evident from these cases that for Bader Ginsburg, a more perfect union is one that moves to include more members of society as rights-bearers – particularly the historically excluded. Her achievements at the Supreme Court were agentic of progress toward a more pluralistic society of equal opportunity and inclusion.
In remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we find lessons for how to use the present moment to improve what has been and to envision what will be. These are lessons of agency and hope, of clear-eyed remembrance and of expansive moral imagination, that we will need to apply as we navigate our individual and collective destinies.
By the time you read this, the news cycle will have kept moving and your immediate concerns will be vividly coloured by the latest scandal, scare and outrage in a bewildering world where change is happening all too-fast all around us, and yet for some, change is not happening at all or fast enough.
It is easy, without the long view, to forget how far we have come and to take for granted that so much of what was previously unimaginable has become possible – a forgetting that can lead to a further forgetting that it is our responsibility and privilege, right now, individually and as a collective, to shape the future.
To honour the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg means to charge ourselves with the task of having the self-belief to aspire to something great, even if we are told that it is not attainable, of having the courage of our convictions to do what it takes, no matter how difficult, and wherever we go, to find ways to lift up others where we see injustice.
It is with the historical view that we must understand ourselves as agents of change and as shapers of history. We must see ourselves as the next in line to carry the torch of someone who has come before us. We must, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg did in honouring her mother, honour the past by becoming living banners of hope for a better future. Whatever form that may take. In whatever arena that calls to us.
For “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.
To this observation of Martin Luther King Jr, Bader Ginsburg added – but only “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”
That task now, and always, is ours.