When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18th I felt as if the ground upon which I walk had opened up and swallowed me. With her loss, the steady balance she had provided since her arrival at the Supreme Court created a vortex of pain. In the days since her death I have pondered why it was a vortex, why the grief was so deep and the pull so strong. For me, the loss of Ginsburg on the Supreme Court cannot be overstated. Yet, I suspect somewhere inside of me I thought she would pull off her fight against death and live until a new president could replace her. But, that too was an illusion of false-hope, as a new president is not guaranteed. Only a next president is guaranteed. In 2020, women have been voting for 100 years, yet it does not seem that our rights are secure. In fact, Black and Native American women really did not see their rights secured until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was all but struck down this year. Ginsburg, of course, dissented commenting in her ever-pragmatic way, it is like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” She was, always, so sensible.
Women’s fight for equity is perennial. It was not until 1971, in Reed v. Reed, that an Idaho statue giving preference to men – “males must be preferred to females” – was struck down following a Ginsburg, pre-Supreme Court, brief. For the first time, Reed ruled that discrimination on the basis of sex violated the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. I was in high school and Ginsburg was about to earn a full professorship at Columbia, the first woman to do so. Still, post Reed, in 1978 when I was in my 20s and a legal adult, I sought a loan. A small loan, a loan to get me to New York, a stepping stone to begin my professional life. I needed my father’s signature. And, 50 years later still we struggle.
In 1986 I sought an abortion. A right granted by Roe v. Wade decided barely a decade before. The male doctor who had my medical records, which in my case were necessary for the procedure due to a life-threatening pre-existing condition, refused to release them to my gynecologist. And this, by a man who had sexually assaulted me in his examination room. My gynecologist, a kind and compassionate immigrant, found another doctor. My mother, however, had no such options despite the fact after two children she was told more children would endanger her life. Surely, I am here because she did not have the rights I finally have. But the gauntlet she ran to survive, and the toll it took on her, is not lost on me. Nor is the fact that in 2020 my daughter needed medication for a miscarriage. Medication that technically causes a woman to abort her dead fetus and prevent sepsis. Without Roe the care and safety she sought, and her doctor ordered, would have been in jeopardy. In truth, in her southern town it is already in jeopardy, as some pharmacists refuse to fill that prescription. Yes, Roe is in danger, in part because of politics; in part because, as Ginsburg pointed out, it was decided on privacy rights and not equal rights.
In August 1993 when Ginsburg joined the court I was still a naïve creative professional, unschooled in just how far women had come and surely naïve about the road ahead. I understood, then, too little about the rights I had and the rights I had yet to fight for. I did not fully comprehend how fragilely women’s rights hung in the balance. I think back to that time and surmise that, in my naivety, I must have thought my tenacity would get me through. Years of education have opened my eyes to the fullness of what women have been denied and are still denied. I see, now, in the fullness of 2020 light, the magnitude of the loss with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. My heart is heavy with fear for the rights of women.