As the president dances on the grave of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, feminists and the unwitting beneficiaries of her persistence mourn an unspeakable loss.
It's one thing to "plank like Ruth," wear her collar and revel in the RBG documentaries. It's another thing to live by her words, acknowledge her actions and protect her legacy.
Ginsburg was appointed to the high court in 1993, the same year that Karen Shepherd won a seat in Congress to represent Utah's 2nd district. "I was excited, but I had no idea that she had rocked the world," Shepherd said.
It wasn't until she saw the RBG documentary—which she has now seen three times—that she realized what Ginsburg had accomplished. "I was horrified that all these years I didn't know she was the prime mover behind most the substantial changes in the law for women. ... We are now talking about systemic racism in the law, but then there was systemic bias against women."
Shepherd, who once edited the women's magazine Network and was elected in the Year of the Woman, is considered one of Utah's feminist champions. "I spent my whole working life until 1988 doing nothing but women's issues, and I had never heard of Ruth Bader Ginsburg," she said. "I think it was done very quietly. She went after it, piece by piece, and we who were working on issues, too—we just didn't know what she was doing."
There is a meme going around on Facebook that says it all: "Women, if you have a credit card in your own name and your own credit history, if you have leased an apartment or bought property in your name, if you have consented to your own medical treatment, if you played a sport in school, you can thank Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg."
As a member of the national board of the ACLU, local attorney Jill Sheinberg met Ginsburg at gatherings here in Utah. "She was kind of reserved, but boy, did she get it with women's equality," she said. "She made it possible for so many women to do so many things they couldn't do before."
Many people were stunned at Trump's rush to deliver on Day 1 of the justice's death. "It is such an affront, so hypocritical, so undemocratic. It's enough to make you crazy," Sheinberg says.
While a nation tries to mourn amid the political jockeying, memorials are being forged as battle cries. The national group Indivisible is preparing peaceful actions at Senate offices around the country. Ginsburg, after all, was a quiet, stealthy activist.
"A great champion of freedom has arrived in heaven. Her work is done. Her burden is now ours. Let us honor her legacy by doing our duty," writes Steve Schmidt of the Lincoln Project, a Republican-based political action committee bent on beating Trump. "'Fight, register, vote. I Dissent' are the most American of words. Thank you, Madame Justice. May your memory be a blessing."
Ginsburg was able to reach across the partisan divide, understand another point of view and make the opposition understand hers, says Cindy Kindred, a longtime women's advocate and co-founder of Utah Women & Politics. "She was able to use that massive and wonderful intellect that built bridges. You look at where we are today—and we have no bridges."
As a Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg showed up the day after her husband died and delivered an opinion. "She was willing to do what had to be done," Sheinberg says.
Her death, however, changes the presidential race dramatically. "The focus was on all the things [Trump] has failed at so miserably—COVID, the economy, border crossings, immigration. The shift is now toward those social issues like abortion," says Kindred.
Even if the Democrats win the Senate in November, Kindred fears Republicans would have two months to do damage in retribution. "It doesn't matter what they do," she says. "It's very sad. With [Ginsburg's] departure, one philosophy will be dominating as the last arbiter of dissension."
Always attempting to find consensus, Ginsburg will be remembered as someone who realized that we can think differently and still find a middle road. It may surprise some that she fought for equality for men in several gender discrimination cases that she argued successfully. "Even in cases she won in the court, she looked at the other person's view, so a man could understand," Kindred says.
On social issues, the courts have actually lagged behind the nation on concerns like gay marriage and health care. And if the high court becomes solidly conservative, the courts may not catch up for decades. "Our realities are so different," Kindred says of the two parties. "We tend to get into our own echo chambers—it's all reinforced—and there's no way out of it."
Ginsburg encouraged women in a patriarchal society and showed the nation that compromise was not evil. And even if the ideals of compromise and middle ground appear to be crumbling with a starkly polarized Congress, Shepherd doesn't see Ginsburg's death as the end of the fight. "What I do think is predictable. I think women are going to absolutely rise up and say, 'You're taking away my health care, you're taking away my right to choose, I want to control my body.' ... The threat has never really materialized for people before. This is like a beacon in the sky in their eyes."
She expects people to respond very strongly at the ballot box in memory of Ginsburg and to cement her legacy.
"She was the unsung hero of changing the legal fabric of our system."
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