Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent death has me reeling. Yes, I know she was old and had fought cancer five times. But she’s kind of always been there, you know? She was appointed to the Supreme Court when I was in high school. Because of her tireless work ethic and ability to soldier on through thick and thin, I guess I thought that she’d just keep on keeping on until, I don’t know, forever?
But RBG’s death has put a spotlight on some real and important things about the way she lived her life that I want my daughter to know. At seven years old, my daughter isn’t yet able to grasp just how much RBG helped shape the world she lives in (like protecting her from one day being fired from a job if she gets pregnant – and for the ability to open a bank account in her own name). But my daughter is old enough to understand some of the lessons I’ve learned from the late Supreme Court justice’s example.
1. You don’t have to be big and loud to be mighty.
My daughter lacks a commanding voice or a big presence. She struggles to speak on those all-class Zooms (even the “fun,” social ones) and cringes a bit when caught on camera. And yet, she stands for things. Being kind to animals. Helping the homeless. Upholding children’s rights to a second cookie after dinner.
In a cultural moment when outsized personalities and loud voices seem to rule the day, I hope my daughter learns that her own voice matters out in the world, too. When I showed my daughter a video of RBG, who stood barely five feet tall and spoke in a soft, slow voice, she was intrigued. That’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg? she asked incredulously. That’s the woman, I could almost hear her thinking, who did all those important things in the world? Yes, I told her, it is. RBG was small and quiet, but with her intelligence and grit, she made an outsized impact. Mighty indeed.
2. Marry someone who believes in you.
From time to time, my daughter asks me who I think she’ll marry. None of those annoying boys in your class is what immediately springs to mind, but I hold my tongue and usually say something like, someone you love dearly and who loves you back with all of his (or her) heart. But I think that, maybe, love isn’t the whole enchilada here.
RBG’s husband of 56 years, Martin Ginsburg, was a tax lawyer with a number of accolades to his own name who also actively supported his wife’s career choices and ambitions. Without him, it’s possible she wouldn’t have been nominated to SCOTUS at all because, by all accounts, he networked the crap out of DC to help her get there. He wanted her to succeed because he believed in her abilities—even though they were both from a generation in which that kind of dynamic was far from the norm. Even though it meant that she had less time to devote to him. Even though her accomplishments would eventually eclipse his own.
If my daughter chooses to marry one day, I hope that this is the kind of person she finds. Someone who knows her worth and is willing to go to bat for it. Someone who will help her open a squirrel sanctuary—her current ambition, on which I am not passing (audible) judgment—or whatever it is she really wants to do.
3. Sometimes, it’s actually better when things don’t go your way.
When RBG graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959, none of the top New York law firms would hire her (because—spoiler alert!—sexism), and throughout her early career she missed out on lots of professional opportunities as a woman and a mother. And yet, Ginsburg said that she actually felt grateful for those missed opportunities because they led her down a twisty, alternate path that eventually led to the Supreme Court. There, she had the chance to change the world in a much bigger way than any traditional law career would have allowed.
In our own home, things aren’t going my daughter’s way right now. Like, not at all. She wants in-person time with her besties. She wants to go to jump rope club and eat at her favorite restaurant. She really wants to go school. (Me too, kid. Me, too.) Obviously, none of this is possible at the moment—and what is possible (Zoom school, Zoom playdates, jump rope in the driveway, take-out) isn’t really all that fun. But this quarantine moment has opened up some new interests that perhaps she wouldn’t have had a chance to discover if things had gone more her way.
For instance, she loved starting a backyard garden together and even tended it alone on the days I was holed up in my office on deadlines. We grew peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, and a slew of herbs that we’ve since had a chance to incorporate in our family meals. She loves cutting veggies with me in the kitchen and even has a name for that special mama-daughter time: Chop and Chat. Quarantine has also sparked her backyard squirrel-watching, which may one day flower into a career as a wildlife scientist, or yes, the co-founder of a squirrel sanctuary (along with her uber-supportive spouse, naturally).
I’m hoping that the missed opportunities and alternate paths offered up by this quarantine will turn out feeling not so bad after all. I’m hoping that one day my daughter even looks back at this moment and sees it as a time when, barred from doing most of the things she wanted, she had the chance to find some other things that really light her up.
Of course, I wish that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had lived long enough for my daughter to see her tireless work in action, or to appreciate the power of the phrase, “I dissent.” But, truly, her legacy of working toward equality is with us every day. RIP, RBG. And thank you.