Ruth Bader Ginsburg was 87 years old when she passed away on Friday night. If you were keeping cosmic score, it was the Jewish New Year and a day for hope and new beginnings.
In a world that won’t cast 50-year-old women in films, Justice Ginsburg managed to be an aspiration for the soccer moms and also the middle schoolers and, yes, the toddlers who dressed in tiny glasses and oversized collars for Halloween. She was the most improbable icon sprung from the unlikeliest branch of government—a dork’s dork, seated for decades on a court that permits neither cameras nor tape recorders. She was conservative to the point of being maddening; she welcomed Brett Kavanaugh to the bench after confirmation hearings that eviscerated half the women in the country. She was opposed to structural court reform, even if it meant protecting Mitch McConnell’s outsized hand in preserving minority rule. She didn’t understand Colin Kaepernick and why he was kneeling. And yet, perhaps more than anyone else in America, she became the woman we all wanted to be.
A few months ago, I had the greatest joy of my two-decade career: an opportunity to interview the notorious one herself, at the court, shortly before lockdown closed its doors. The project was about her Harvard Law School classmates, and what it was like to be one of the first women to attend that law school and the barriers faced by anyone who wasn’t a white male. Throughout our hour together, I was asking the questions, but the justice’s eyes weren’t focused on me. Not really. Instead, she was frequently looking at our twentysomething staffer, Molly Olmstead, who had done the bulk of the research on the project and had come to know this Harvard class like it was her own. You couldn’t miss it; none of us in the room missed it. The Gen Xers were fine, sure, but it was the young woman to whom Ruth Bader Ginsburg directed herself. Always. She loved being an icon and a rock chick and a heroine and a tote bag, not because she loved the adulation—it was not her hardworking and quiet disposition to love something that came so late in her life, and sat uneasily on her serious shoulders. But she loved it because she loved the idea that suddenly young people were reading her dissents, setting them to music, comparing her to rappers, and ingesting her into their cultural DNA. For as long as I watched her, she was, in turn, watching the generations that came after me. Because she always genuinely believed that they would finish the work she had started. [Continue reading…]