A letter to Justice Ginsburg
Eva Analitis | Monday, September 21, 2020
Dear Justice Ginsburg,
My heart dropped on Friday when I heard of your passing. Just a day earlier, I had been listening to your voice in a recording of the oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin while working on a project. You were a constant force in our nation: a reliable, fierce defender of human rights; a warrior for women both as a lawyer and as a judge; and even while battling pancreatic cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, you continued doing your job “full steam.” It doesn’t feel real that you’re gone. Having spent the past month in class reading about cases that you argued as a lawyer or heard as a justice, I’ve come to understand the true magnitude of your impact on the fight for justice. I am deeply thankful for who you were and what you did. As you fought for your life behind the scenes, you fought for the lives of others behind the bench–fighting to ensure that they can live with dignity and equal opportunity.
I don’t remember much from high school chemistry, but I do vividly remember a poster that hung on the wall to the left where I sat, that featured purple, green, yellow and orange human-shaped objects stacked high in pyramid formation. The poster displayed a quote from Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This quote, etched into my mind and retraced every day as I stared at it in chemistry, tells us about the nature of human progress. We build on the achievements of those who came before us, and over time, humanity as a whole is able to see more and more about the world. The same is true of justice in general and the American legal system in particular. We build on past movements to work for justice, and our courts use legal precedent to decide new cases.
I have often wondered why my life has been relatively easy — why I happened to be born in a particular time, place and situation without many obstacles to my success that so many before me encountered. It is not lost on me that I have been able to pass quite easily through doors that women of just a few decades ago found locked. I now realize that you opened many of them — and that is not an overstatement. Growing up, the question was always what college I would go to and what career I would choose, not whether colleges would accept me, as a female student, or whether I would be allowed to work in certain fields. I’ve been able to take for granted things that you and many others earned.
As a mother and a wife, you showed us that women do not have to choose between a career and a family. As a lawyer and a judge, you helped enshrine legal protections for this idea. Two important lessons I learned from you are to speak my mind and to persist. While at times the Court joined you in deciding to advance equal rights, you sometimes found yourself alone or in the minority in promoting equality. In these situations, you held your ground and fought for the ideals to which this nation has aspired but not yet fulfilled. In Ledbetter v. Goodyear, you fiercely dissented from a Court opinion that made it more difficult for women to sue their employers over wage discrimination. You also demonstrated the importance of disagreeing constructively, with a goal of change in mind. You famously said, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Your personal life is a story of persistence, from start to finish. When your husband was diagnosed with cancer, you were one of just nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law School. Juggling the responsibilities of raising a three-year-old child, caring for your sick husband and taking classes at the top law school in the nation, you pushed forward remarkably. You’d stay up late as your husband dictated his senior class paper to you, and after he’d fall asleep you would begin preparing for your own classes that were the next day. After transferring to Columbia Law School, in spite of graduating at the top of your class, you struggled to find a law firm that would hire you, simply because you were a woman. Later on, when you became a professor at Rutgers Law School, you again encountered the barriers that women face as professionals. Draped in your mother-in-law’s clothes, you hid your second pregnancy so that it wouldn’t stand in the way of your contract being renewed. Finally, you went 25 years without missing a day on the Supreme Court, despite being diagnosed with cancer in 1999 and battling the disease on and off for the next twenty years. A warrior in and out of the courtroom, you persisted when so many others would have quit.
Three letters of the alphabet, R, B and G, will forever stand out to me above the rest, thanks to you. I remember watching the movie “On the Basis of Sex” on a plane and thinking, “I want to be like RBG.” You have quite literally shaped the course of American history as well as many individual lives along the way. For a woman of such small stature, you sure left some big shoes to fill. A massive vacancy now occupies the Supreme Court — one that cannot be filled by a mere individual. We must fill it collectively as a nation through commitment to equal protection of the law. Thank you for letting us stand on your shoulders, giant. I see justice on the horizon.
Eva Analitis is a junior in Lyons Hall majoring in political science and pre-health. If you see her around campus, don’t be afraid to whisk her off for an impromptu philosophical discussion. Otherwise, you can reach her at [email protected].
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.