Ruth Bader Ginsburg, pioneering feminist judge and one of our generation’s great legal minds, died on Friday, aged 87—and what’s left for many of us is a vast expanse in which to grapple with the legacy she’s left behind.
On one hand, it’s a wonderful testament to the times we’re living in that the death of Ginsburg struck such a profound cultural nerve. In no other era would the death of an 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice inspire a large-scale global mourning, largely by people in their teens and 20s. Women seemed to know, instinctively then concretely, that RBG’s death was going to change things. 2020 wanted to go in for another round, and now we have no choice but to step into the ring.
Ginsburg, per the New Yorker, has done more for the advancement of equality under American law than any other woman in the nation’s history. A viral meme circulated shortly after her death read: “Women, if you have a credit card in your name and your own credit history, if you have leased an apartment or bought a property in your own name, if you have consented to your own medical treatment, if you’ve played a sport in school, you can thank Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
RBG’s legacy is more fraught than it should have been. When she died on Friday, after a long bout of pancreatic cancer, many assumed that, as is tradition, Donald Trump would wait until the election in November before they began proceedings to replace her. Barack Obama chose to delay the replacement of Judge Antonin Scalia until after the 2016 election, and Scalia died in February. But no, the shamelessness of Trump and of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell knows no bounds, and within hours of RBG’s passing both revealed plans to push through a replacement before November 3rd.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s candidates swing violently right of the liberal-leaning ethos Ginsburg brought to the bench. Don’t be fooled by his short-list of mainly female candidates. The front-runners include devout Catholic Amy Coney Barrett, who supports expanded gun rights and Trump’s anti-immigration policy and Allison Jones Rushing, who has been criticized for aligning with the ‘Alliance Defending Freedom’, a legal nonprofit who are openly anti-LGBT. Most importantly, both Barrett and Rushing are publicly anti-abortion, and their appointment could potentially, according to academic Robin Marty, see Roe vs. Wade, the legal precedent enshrining a woman’s right to access abortion, overturned within the year.
If that sentence feels terrifying, that’s because it is. Marty is quick to outline that many variables will need to fall into place for the above to happen, including the fact that Trump is unlikely to be able to rush through a candidate before November, even if he wants to. But the possibilities that have now opened are real and scary, and add even higher stakes to the impending presidential election.
Ginsburg’s legacy is somewhat marred by criticism that she should have stepped down from the court years ago, when a more liberal replacement could arguably have been made. But as Rebecca Traister so eloquently put it in her essay for The Cut, to indulge in this criticism is to put an unfair and impossible level of expectation and responsibility on a single woman’s shoulders. As Traister’s headline so succinctly put it: It shouldn’t have come down to her.
The best thing we can do, right now, is to celebrate the great luck that America had that RBG decided to dedicate herself to public life so diligently. As the Netflix documentary RBG chronicles, Ginsburg worked tirelessly for decades in her fight for women’s equality, taking on strategic legal cases that helped women win the many legal freedoms we mentioned earlier in this essay. She did this with a quiet defiance, a heavy intelligence, and a sense of personal grace that we should all strive for in our own lives. This, before anything else, is the simplest—though not always the easiest—way to honor the legacy of a giant.