by Diana Belchase
The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg came as a shock yesterday, though it should not have. After all, she had been plagued by health problems and was nearly 90. But, tiny as she was, this woman towered, like a superhero, as iconic as the Statue of Liberty. She seemed invincible. So her death, feels unreal, a non sequitur in a year already full of incredible, unbelievable events.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a fighter, pithy and intelligent. Whether you agreed with her or not, you respected her. She became a role model for me and millions of other women — showing it didn’t take physical prowess, but logic and intellect to get your point across and to put your imprint on our world. And if you studied hard, you could break that glass ceiling into a million shards. The big boys didn’t “let” her join them, she was one of them from the start, and they knew it.
I count myself as one of the lucky few, someone who actually met her more than once. She’d never remember me, but despite her unassuming appearance, RBG was one woman no one could ever forget. In her honor, I’d like to retell you all about the first time I met her.
“We’re going to meet whom?”
Dumbfounded, I barely comprehended as my husband told me we’d been invited to a reception with Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justice Ginsburg. On my scale of fantasy events (yes I’m a D.C. wonk), this was second only being invited to dine at a White House State dinner. When my husband’s boss passed him the tickets, it was one of the most exciting things that had happened in a long time.
Having experienced our fair share of rubber chicken D.C. dinners, I didn’t expect much. There’d probably be a glass of wine (almost always a mediocre white), crowded tables in white linen, a podium with a ten minute greeting, one or two hands would be shaken and the rest of us waved at. Amongst the hoards I imagined, we’d probably be lucky to breathe the same air as the Justices.
Nonetheless, I was stoked. Back then, we’d been in D.C. for only a few years, and never gotten near anyone as important as these two individuals. These two judges from opposite ideology would shape every facet of our laws, and thus our lives, for many years to come. To say I have great respect for our Supreme Court Justices – whether or not I agree with them – is a vast understatement. To me, they are the real rock stars of this country.
Instead, the gathering was intimate. About thirty people gathered in the East Conference room of the Supreme Court. To say this room was magnificent would be an understatement. Crystal chandeliers were hung with star shaped pendants, a motif repeated in the carpet. The highly carved ceiling painted in soft blues and pinks featured gilded raised medallions. Fine oils of former justices graced the walls. Yes, wine was served but so were an assortment of modest but elegant canapés handed around by waiters on trays. Rubber chicken was nowhere in sight.
Unfortunately, Chief Justice Roberts was as scarce as the chicken, having been called away on an urgent matter. The allure of this intellectual had attracted many of us to the gathering – he’d only recently been appointed Chief Justice, and we, the wonky curious, were sorry not to be among the first to meet him.
Yet, it was Justice Ginsburg who quietly stole the limelight.
Ginsburg always struck me as one of the fiercest Justices on the court. Her no nonsense demeanor shines through in every photograph. RBG’s opinions are well written and to the point. Surely an Amazon of such proportions would be intimidating in person?
Instead, at first, I wondered who the tiny woman next to the podium could be? Seeming not more than five feet tall she appeared modest and shy. Had I passed her on the street she might have gone unnoticed. I’d have figured her for someone in a back office with not much to say. But, when she was asked to speak, her whole face lit up with a smile.
Later, she edged away from the crowd and stood in line (yes like the rest of us and with the rest of us) to get something to drink. I couldn’t resist asking to shake her hand, and later take a photograph. Her hands were large for a woman of her size and rough – you could tell she was used to hard work. The handshake itself was firm and strong. She seemed glad to say hello, although uncomfortable with compliments or attention.
As we mingled with the high echelon of Washington’s business community, I was amazed at how few sought her out — so afraid of saying hello. It appears even people at the top are as socially timid as those of us lower on the ladder.
Justice Ginsburg spoke about her difficulties publishing the memoir written by Malvina Harlan, wife of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter in Plessy vs. Ferguson.
Listen to Ruth Bader Ginsburg talk about Malvina Harlan on NPR:
Malvina, from a family of passionate abolitionists, married Harlan, whose family owned more than twelve slaves. He also owned slaves while they were married. Perhaps it was Malvina’s influence, but Harlan eventually stood with the Union against the Confederacy and despised the “separate but equal” doctrine of the poorly judged Plessy case. This is from his dissenting opinion:
The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved. It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a state to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race.
In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case.
Most publishers saw the memoir of a woman who never strayed from her supporting role as boring. Not Ginsburg. Instead, she saw it as a first hand account of the life and times of people who quietly changed their world. It is a description of race relations, and trying times, which still mirror our own. Ginsburg’s quest to publish Some Memories of a Long Life showed, while women’s roles have changed, the need of women to support one another, even across centuries, is still the same.
Besides writing the forward to Harlan’s memoir, Ginsburg published a best selling memoir of her own titled, My Own Words. On the Basis of Sex, a movie about Ginsburg as an attorney battling gender discrimination, and RBG, a documentary are both blockbusters. Posters of the aged jurist, in her tight bun, are as iconic as those of Einstein with his hair billowing madly about his face. Perhaps, that hairstyle will now come back into fashion. There are clearly people who disagreed with her, even disliked her intensely, but there were few who disrespected her.
She hadn’t attained such status when I first met her. A little more than a decade into her term, at that time she was merely, if one can say that about a Supreme Court Justice, the leftist Clinton appointment, the second woman ever to serve. She was often considered the court’s troublemaker and dissenting voice.
But that evening, as I left the vaulted ceilings and intricate architecture of the Supreme Court, I found true inspiration in a petite woman, this quiet tiger, even more impressive than the incredible building that surrounded her.