An inspiration and an example: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Friday, mourned in Valley

  • The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks this past February at Georgetown University about the history of the 19th Amendment. AP PHOTO/PATRICK SEMANSKY  

  • Rallies to honor the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg took place this weekend in many places, including downtown Northampton; this event was in New York City. AP PHOTO/CRAIG RUTTLE  

  • The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks in 2016 to the State Bar of New Mexico. Valley residents recalled Ginsburg as a champion for equality for all people. AP PHOTO

  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks during her conversation with Amherst College President Biddy Martin Oct. 3, 2019 at the college. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks at Amherst College Oct. 3, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/20/2020 6:26:09 PM

NORTHAMPTON — She was, in the eyes of one longtime admirer, a “remarkable combination of humility and genius.” Others saw her as a champion for women, for equal rights for all, and for the underdog in general. And she’s also remembered as someone who fought against the political polarization of the times, even if she disagreed with others’ opinions.

When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday at age 87, writer Susan Faludi felt she’d suddenly lost a key inspiration for her own work as a feminist. And the nation as a whole, she added, has lost someone who consistently fought for equality of all Americans.

“She shaped my life as a feminist writer — she really informed my thinking,” said Faludi, an award-winning journalist and author who won widespread attention with her 1991 book, “Backlash,” a look at how the media and other parts of U.S. society in the 1980s essentially counterattacked gains the women’s movement had made in the 1970s.

Faludi, currently a visiting writer at Smith College, said that in doing the research for “Backlash,” she drew on Ginsburg’s writing and her work as a lawyer in the 1970s, when — working with the American Civil Liberties Union — Ginsburg successfully argued a series of cases before the Supreme Court that broke down the wall of gender discrimination.

“She was an inspiration in so many ways when it came to women’s rights, whether it was gaining parity in the workforce or just breaking down gender stereotypes,” said Faludi. “I was always impressed by her brilliance and clear thinking, and yet she had this image of being quiet and petite ... There wasn’t an ounce of pretension in her.”

Ginsburg, who in 1993 became the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court, was a legal pioneer who became a hero to the left due to her strong arguments for gender equality. She also became a role model for generations of female lawyers, finishing at the top of her law school class in an era when many men thought women had no place in the legal world.

Filling the seat

Ginsburg’s death, following her battle with cancer over the last several years, has set off an earthquake in the political world, as President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have said they will attempt to fill her seat as soon as possible, even      with national elections just six weeks away.

Democrats have called that move blatantly hypocritical, given that McConnell, in 2016, refused for months to hold hearings for Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for a vacant Supreme Court seat; McConnell said at that time that no vote should be held until after the November elections.

Ginsburg herself, just days before her death, dictated a statement to her granddaughter: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

Given all those circumstances, Ginsburg’s death “is just devastating at multiple levels,” said Carrie N. Baker, a writer and a professor of the study of women and gender at Smith College. “I’ve felt for a while that our democracy is being undermined, but if a new conservative justice is rammed through like this, I fear for its survival.”

A conservative taking Ginsburg’s place might well enable the Supreme Court, with a 6-3 conservative majority, to roll back women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, civil rights and voting rights, she noted: “It’s a very scary thought.”

And Faludi said, “To truly honor her memory, and the way she respected people even when she disagreed with them, you really need to appoint a more moderate judge.”

‘Creativity and brilliance’

Baker says she first became acquainted with Ginsburg’s legal writings and philosophy when she was in law school herself in the 1990s; she became steadily more impressed with her reasoning and her legal strategy.

Ginsburg’s novel argument of using the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection under the law” clause to argue in the 1970s against gender discrimination was a trademark example of her “combination of creativity and brilliance,” said Baker. “She was able to convince an all-male Supreme Court to change the law.”

Baker noted that for years she has used Ginsburg’s work and her life history — she was born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, to a family of modest means and lost a sister and her mother by the time she was 17 — in her classes. After Ginsburg’s death was announced Friday, she said, many former students emailed her to see how she was holding up.

“So many of them asked ‘How are you doing?’” she said. “It was really touching.”

As saddened and frightened as they are by Ginsburg’s death, both Baker and Faludi also spoke fondly of Ginsburg’s iconic status as “The Notorious RBG,” the nickname she earned (a play on the late rapper The Notorious B.I.G.) as the subject of books, a documentary and a 2018 biopic, among other media.

Ginsburg’s face also appeared on  sweatshirts, wristbands, T-shirts and other consumer items, Baker noted; with a laugh, she said she bought some pairs of socks with Ginsburg’s image on them from Broadside Bookshop in Northampton.

Honoring her legacy

Bill Newman, who directs the Western Massachusetts office of the ACLU, also is grieved by the loss of Ginsburg, saying that the best way to honor her is by “protecting the equality of all people and protecting their ability to be free ... our country has changed, and changed for the better, because of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

Newman also noted that Anthony Romero, the ACLU’s executive director, has just announced that the organization’s Center for Liberty, in New York City, will be renamed the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Liberty Center.

And Amherst College President Biddy Martin, who hosted a visit by Ginsburg to the campus last fall, said in an email that she’ll remember the late justice as “a woman who overcame tremendous barriers to career success, and an example of what it means, paraphrasing her, to use what talents we have to make life better for others.”

Martin also noted that aside from Ginsburg’s legal victories and courtroom acumen, she showed “extraordinary determination, perseverance, and optimism about the ultimate promise of democracy” and “chose strategies that would allow others to see and understand the reasoning behind her positions and put themselves in the place of others.”

When she was at Amherst last fall, Ginsburg reflected on how she differed from her mother, who worked as a bookkeeper in New York’s garment district. “The difference,” she said, “is one generation — the difference between the opportunities eventually opened to me, and much more restrictive opportunities available to my mother.”

Faludi, who met Ginsburg about 12 years ago when she spent a year at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, said Ginsburg’s death, coming on the heels of that of civil rights icon John Lewis, has been very tough to bear. She says she’s trying to find something positive in the justice’s legacy of perseverance and strength.

“I hope that a lot of little girls will continue to be inspired by The Notorious RBG and go on to law school and careers in the law,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at
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