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The ‘Chilling Prospect’ of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Passing

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The legend that is Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one that transcends much of what American law means in a Trump world – but also one that represents much to women lawyers and – dare we say it? – women everywhere.

An opinion piece on the Guardian recognizes the obvious, that the already 86-year-old Cancer-stricken jurist, can’t live forever.

But, as Moira Donegan writes, it may be dangerous for women’s freedoms too.

You can find her face on enamel pins, tote bags posters, and greetings cards. She stares at you from T-shirts, from stickers, from stationery, from inside embroidery hoops, her face rendered in tiny squares of thread.

She is shown stern faced, eyes impenetrable behind her oversize glasses; or with the tiny smile of someone who knows a secret. Sometimes she is shown with a toy crown on her small head, cocked slightly askew in reference to a famous photo of the Brooklyn rapper Biggie Smalls. Underneath, the word “Notorious”.

The cult of personality that has sprung up around Ginsburg, making her a hero to liberal American women and a beloved figure of pop culture lionization, has something to do with how much she has endured on the bench, how much she has suffered to be there, and her tenacious, implacable refusal to step down and retire in the face of her illness.

It has something to do, too, with the content of her career and her public statements, in which she has advocated strongly for women’s place in public life and for their full and equal citizenship. Before the court, in her career as a lawyer, legal academic, and activist, she worked to extend the 14th amendment and the Civil Rights Act to women; she was founder of the ACLU’s women’s rights project and an ardent opponent of laws that sought to treat women as lesser than men. With the possible exception of Catharine MacKinnon, no legal mind has been so influential on the subject of gender.Advertisement

Since she was appointed to the court by Bill Clinton, Ginsburg has been a vote to protect the increasingly besieged rights to abortion, to contraception, and to anti-discrimination laws that extend women sex-based protections. This has been the central belief of her career, a belief that is less popular and more heatedly endangered than it once was: that women are subjects of American democracy just as men are, and that they should be as free as men are.

“I’m sometimes asked when there will be enough,” she once said, referring to a question she gets with some frequency about the number of women on the supreme court (there are currently three). “And I say, ‘When there are nine.’”

On the symbolic level, the drama of her fight to remain on the bench is the drama of women in American democracy. Many people do not want her there, and are eager for her to leave; dark and unremitting forces are at work to remove her. But she stays. In a recent interview with NPR’s Nina Totenberg, she spoke defiantly of her own endurance.

“There was a senator, I think it was after my pancreatic cancer” – Ginsburg has had pancreatic cancer once before – “who announced with great glee that I was going to be dead within six months. That senator, whose name I have forgotten, is now himself dead. And I am very much alive.”

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