The following reflection was written by Associate Professor and Chair of the Women’s Studies Department Jessica Hayes-Conroy.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died on September 18, 2020. For all feminist scholars and activists, her death is undoubtedly experienced as an extreme loss. Today it is particularly notable how resonate Ginsberg was as a feminist icon across the generations. Turning to social media after the news of Ginsberg’s death, her power and impact was evident. An icon. A queen. A super diva. A hero. A role model. A champion. Notorious. Unstoppable. Author Ruth Franklin took to twitter to remind us that, “according to Jewish tradition, a person who dies on Rosh Hashanah…is a tzaddik, a person of great righteousness.” No doubt that all of these are apt descriptions of Justice Ginsberg.
I was struck too by a quote from Dahlia Lithwick from early last year: “Today, more than ever, women starved for models of female influence, authenticity, dignity, and voice hold up an octogenarian justice as the embodiment of hope for an empowered future” (The Atlantic, 2019). If anything, 2020 had only amplified Ginsberg’s role as a feminist role model, and as a beacon of hope during extraordinarily challenging times.
And so, it is inevitable that we experience her death as a great loss. And it is perhaps also inevitable, given the state of our country today, that with this profound sense of loss comes an equally profound sense of fear. What does this mean for our country? For democracy? For the feminist movement? For reproductive justice? For immigrant rights? For the separation of church and state? Alongside all of the posts celebrating her life and mourning her death is a palpable sense of dread. A looming concern for what is ahead. What does this mean for us?
Of course, Ginsberg herself knew this. She was not just an icon and a symbol of feminist empowerment; she held—in life—significant and meaningful power. In her last days, she is reported to have stated that “my most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
It is unfortunate that we cannot simply grieve Justice Ginsberg’s death, and celebrate her life. That we must immediately look to secure what we can of her legacy, to ensure that her significant movement toward justice and equality cannot be undone. But that is of course what we will do. This is where the hope she sparked lives on. In the resolve to continue her fight. In the determination to not give up. In the conviction that her life and work will be upheld.
And, perhaps most importantly, in the sense of obligation both to vote this November and to demand, before then, a fair process for appointing a new justice.
Thank you, Justice Ginsberg, for all you did to define, promote, and uphold feminist values in our society. We will mourn you, celebrate you, and fight for you moving forward.
HWS student and women’s studies minor Jada Eisenbud ’23 also recently wrote about what Justice Ginsberg’s life and death has meant to her. Read her words here.