Why am I startled?  Why do I feel uneasy and somewhat cast adrift? Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was 87 years old. While in my head I know that no one lives forever, in my heart it seems that some people should. I recall writing the content for WoVeN’s meeting #5 – “Connections”. As I thought about my own dinner table, I imagined inviting Justice Ginsburg to join me as my idol. I think this is true for so many women – Justice Ginsburg was easy to idolize.

Generations of women have now had the rare opportunity to witness firsthand, and benefit from, true greatness. As Justice Ginsburg is honored today at the Supreme Court, guarded by her army of clerks, we take a moment to reflect on the enormity of her contributions to our nation and, most specifically, to women. It is an understatement to say we are immeasurably saddened by the loss of this stalwart and fierce pioneer of women’s rights. The death of our real-life heroine, our guardian of gender equalities and liberties leaves a hole that will be hard to fill.

A mere five decades ago, Justice Ginsberg was one of nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law. In a now famous interview, she recalls all nine women being asked why they had taken a seat in this esteemed institution from a man. How many women today are still asked this question in some form or another?  I know I have experienced similar scenarios throughout the course of my life. The difference, however, between our experiences in 2020 and Justice Ginsberg experiences in the 1970s is that women today have legal recourse when faced with such discrimination. And for that, she will forever have our gratitude.

The legal status of women changed for the better in so many ways when Justice Ginsberg entered the arena. Looking back on her life’s work, we can see how intentionally and artfully Justice Ginsberg altered the legal and political landscape for all women, bringing the very concept of sex discrimination to the attention of the justice system, all the way to the Supreme Court. Her journey to the highest court in the land was never easy. In fact upon graduating from Columbia Law School, she was simply not able to get a job in any law firm in New York City because she was a woman and despite having made Law Review at Harvard in her second year and graduating at the top of her Columbia class. It is well known that she accomplished all of this as a young mother while supporting her husband (physically and academically) who was diagnosed with cancer through his own law school journey. Justice Ginsburg was no less than a superhero.

Who amongst us has not benefitted because of Ruth Ginsberg? Women clearly have benefitted – when we apply for credit independently, when we receive a paycheck that resembles our male counterparts’, when we have legal recourse when treated unjustly in the workplace and elsewhere because of our sex, for female athletes in her protection of Title 9, and certainly when women service members receive equal housing pay during service, when women in the Navy are able to serve at sea, and when a female cadet enrolls in the Virginia Military Institute.  There are so many specific examples of Justice Ginsburg’s unflinching commitment to the basic tenet of equality of justice under the law. These examples culminate in the sweeping changes to the entirety of the legal system and, indeed, the greater American culture.

The loss of this legal giant is real and we all feel it profoundly today as she lies in state. We all mourn her and pay our tribute in our different ways, while knowing that our sadness is shared by women all over the country. Justice Ginsburg has been an inspiration to so many of us for so long. I really have no words to describe the enormity of her impact on this nation. I leave that to the words of the great Maya Angelou, “When Great Trees Fall”.  And, I pledge to pick up her weighty torch and Dissent.

With respect,

Tara Galovski
Director, WoVeN

When Great Trees Fall
by Maya Angelou

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance, fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of
dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

— Maya Angelou