I was cleaning up from dinner, my kids screaming in the yard, when I read the news. Fuck was what I said. Over and over.
What we lost in Ruth Bader Ginsberg was more than a hero, a role-model, and a tireless fighter for democracy, we lost one more protection between us and the dismantling of equality.
Crying in my kitchen. It felt so much like election night 2016. I felt so alone. So scared. But this time. This time. The kitchen was my own kitchen. I was independent and free. In 2016, I was forbidden from going to the Women’s March. Threatened with our marriage. Which I later learned, was worth blowing up for freedom.
The difference between now and 2016, is I was free to fight. I had lost, but I had also won.
I started messaging people. Where do we march? Who do we call? How do we fight? How do we dissent?
The people at Indivisible Iowa, were already on it. They’ve organized a vigil tonight in Cedar Rapids near the Federal courthouse at 7pm. And they asked me to talk.
This morning, I cried in the shower and thought through what I wanted to say. And here it is. I hope you will be out tonight, wherever you are. I hope you will be dissenting.
Joan Ruth Bader Ginsberg was born to Jewish Russian immigrants on March 15, 1933.
She grew up in Brooklyn in a world where women got married and didn’t go to college.
But Ruth’s mother Cecelia had different plans. She raised Ruth to read, raised her to think, raised her to see the world not as it was but as it could be. And we are here today honoring that vision.
Ruth went to college. She went to law school. One of five women in her 500 person class.
When she graduated no one wanted to hire her. Now a wife and a mother. They thought her place was at home. But Ruth knew otherwise.
I am stunned as I read through her biography last night to remember that a woman, who would become one of the most powerful and influential women in American history had to work as a typist because men didn’t want to hire her. How she got her first clerking job because one of her law professors threatened a judge saying if he didn’t hire her, the best student in her law class, he’d never send any other students his way.
So much in the world is different. But so much is the same. I too had a hard time getting hired in jobs in this town. And everyday the job I do have is threatened by men who don’t like what I say.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s life and legacy was defined by her belief not just in equal rights for women. But equal rights for all people. She saw that when one person is discriminated it traps us all.
As a lawyer fought unequal laws that prevented fathers from accessing social security benefits when they were widowed. She fought so fathers could access military benefits when their wives died and left them the sole parent.
RadioLab did a story about Justice Ginsberg fighting for the case Craig v. Boren in 1976. At the time, in Oklahoma, women could buy beer at 18 but men couldn’t buy beer until they were 21. The idea was that men were too wild and dangerous and women were soft and trustworthy and responsible. As the head of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights project, Ginsberg championed the case, because she knew discrimination against men, is discrimination against women. She knew when men are equal, women are equal. That all lives can’t matter until black lives matter.
It was a Trojan horse situation — sliding in equal rights for women, through a case on equal rights for men. Ginsberg submitted an amicus brief in the case and drafted the led legal brief in the case — Craig v. Boren. But in the Supreme Court the case was argued horribly by the lead lawyer on the case Tulsa lawyer Fred Gilbert .
But Ginsberg wasn’t defeated. She had orchestrated it so she went up to argue another case, right after. How? I don’t know. But the justices ended up asking her about the beer case. And she argued both of them — showing how discrimination is a double-edged sword.
She won. She won a case that she wasn’t even the lead lawyer on.
But Ginsberg acknowledges that the changes she ushered in were possible, not just through her capable arguments, but because of a tide of change happening in America.
Let me quote from the NYT obituary: “What caused the court’s understanding to dawn and grow?” she asked in an article published in the Hofstra Law Review in 1997. “Judges do read the newspapers and are affected, not by the weather of the day, as distinguished constitutional law professor Paul Freund once said, but by the climate of the era.
“Supreme Court justices, and lower court judges as well, were becoming aware of a sea change in United States society. Their enlightenment was advanced publicly by the briefs filed in court and privately, I suspect, by the aspirations of the women, particularly the daughters and granddaughters, in their own families and communities.”
Right now, so many of us feel as though Justice Ginsberg was one of the last people standing between us and the legal underpinning of our bodily autonomy through the courts. But that’s not true. Not entirely. We are the change. We are the ones who create the culture through which judge’s rule. We as a people in our public and private dissents and our re imaginations of society, we are more powerful than we think.
When Ruth became Justice Ginsberg, the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court, her career became defined not by the battles she won, but by the ones she lost. Justice Ginsberg seemed to know that you won’t win every battle but a loss can be a win through a vocal and critical dissent.
In the case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, the court voted 5 to 4 to reject a woman’s claim of pay discrimination. In her dissent, delivered from the bench, Justice Ginsberg called congress to act.
On Jan 29, 2009 president Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter equal pay law.
We have lost so much this year. We have lost jobs, 200,000 people in America have lost their lives, of those nearly 1,300 are Iowans. We have lost a school year, lost our businesses, we lost our walls and our roofs when the wind snatched them away from us. We’ve lost a sense of safety.
And we’ve lost battles. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, we were promised so much reform, many of those promises have stalled out, because of the comfort of the people in power, the gravitational pull of the status quo.
I call it being passive-aggressived out. It’s when we get pushed from rooms of power. How often have I seen men discuss my words in rooms where I am not present? How often have I seen in this town women fired for their opinions? How often have I seen people who preach equality ask the voices of dissent to quiet down and be more polite?
And I dissent.
It’s easy, when you lose, to be cynical. And all too often in political punditry cynicism and realism are stand-ins for actual thought.
Do not be complacent with the world as it is. Be bold enough to, like Justice Ginsberg did, fight for the world that can be, that ought to bed.
Justice Ginsberg held onto life until the first day that voting began. Voting is happening right now. And I think that strength is her legacy that I carry with me. That we all must carry with us.
So often, I am told to be quiet. Be nicer. Just write a nicer column every once in a while. And I refuse. Here is why, because like Justice Ginsberg I know that our voices matter, and I will dissent and fight and I will not stop.
I remember in college, writing a story on fraternities and rush. And walking into the campus center and seeing male classmates, who were much larger and more popular than me, holding the newspaper with my words printed in it, shaking and shouting. I wasn’t afraid. What it made me feel was powerful. That people who would otherwise never listen to me, had to listen because of how and what I wrote.
I will never forget that memory. Even as I watch our governor and legislature vote for unconstitutional laws that restrict my rights. Even as I watch as our city leaders passive aggressive to death powerful and much needed change.
It’s easy to feel powerless in loss. And so many of us feel powerless now. But we can’t give up. We have to remember what Justice Ginsberg knew, that she was able to bring change because culture changed and culture changed because the people in power were being forced to listen to dissent from their wives and daughters at home.
I never got to meet Justice Ginsberg, but I benefit from a world that she made more just. We all do. Men and women. And I am devastated and scared, just as you all are. But I know, now more than ever, that even in our loss we can win.
We can dissent.
We can vote. We can march. We can door knock. We can donate to campaigns. We can vocally tell the people in our homes and lives that oppose progress that their complacency isn’t good enough anymore. We can call Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley and tell them to honor the Merrick Garland precedent they set.
We can stop pretending that politics doesn’t affect our lives and start fighting. We can resist cynicism and be bold enough to make the world better than it is now.
Justice Ginsberg is a legend. What we have lost as a country is immeasurable. But her legacy is clearing the path for more people like her. So we can step up. There will be others like her. There are others like her — we are like her.
Amanda Litman, the founder of Run for Something, said of Justice Ginsberg. “May her memory be a revolution.” We are that revolution. We are that memory. We live that legacy.
We can fight for the things we believe in.
And so let us dissent so loudly and so forcefully that we change the world around us.
And even in our losses we can find a way to win.