What Ruth Taught Me

"I'm sorry about RBG, I know how much she meant to you," said my husband, who was first to read the news.  My mind went blank.  I may have blurted out "that's okay."  My mind could not fathom the enormity of this sad occasion at the instant moment.  It's obviously not okay.  The introvert in me needed to do some deep thinking before I could process my thoughts and feelings.  But the man knows me best, so of course he was right.  While I didn't know her personally, like so many others my life and career have been touched by Ruth Bader Ginsburg's trailblazing and relentless pursuit of equal rights under the law.  The fondness I have for her is as strong as any person I could know. 

I had the opportunity of a lifetime to meet Justice Ginsburg at an event at the U.S. Supreme Court held by the American Association of Jewish Lawyers & Jurists (AAJLJ), a non-profit on whose board I had the privilege of serving. The AAJLJ presents an annual “Pursuit of Justice” award at a ceremony often held at the Supreme Court, to distinguished jurists and attorneys who exemplify the Biblical dictate, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” meaning “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan are all past awardees. (Pictured: Me with the late Justice Ginsburg and a fellow AAJLJ board member at the 2013 Pursuit of Justice ceremony honoring Justice Elena Kagan at the Supreme Court). 

As I processed my feelings on our collective loss over the next few days, I realized that Justice Ginsburg's personal life had as much to teach us as her awe-inspiring legal career.  I'd like to share with you some of the many inspiring quotes and lessons from RBG that have stayed with me throughout the years.

Speak Softly, But Carry a Big Stick

While this quote is attributed to Theodore Roosevelt on his approach to international diplomacy, I find it most fitting for Justice Ginsburg.  I mean, is there anyone more diplomatic than she was?  I think RBG's legacy shines so bright, and resonates so deeply, because she did not have a divisive or aggressive bone in her body.  In Ruth fashion, this translated to: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”  

Whether she was litigating in her early days at the ACLU, teaching law students, delivering influential speeches at various organizations, or serving as the second female Supreme Court Justice, she packed a powerful message in a soft-spoken style.  That's a rarity in our field and today's state of affairs generally, where bravado and grandstanding garner the most attention.  

In her column, The Careerist, blogger Vivia Chen captured my current thinking on this best: 

I don’t know if Ginsburg’s decorous style of feminism will survive beyond her—or should. It’s 2020 and, for better or worse, most of us don’t have her patience and equanimity.  That said, ... decency, civility and niceness should never go out of style—something to keep in mind as we enter what promises to be a most indecent, uncivil and nasty fight for her seat. 

(Source: Chen, Vivia (2020, Sept. 22), "RBG: A Feminist Even My Mother-in-Law Likes", The Careerist, Retrieved from https://thecareerist.typepad.com.) 

Which brings me to my next lesson...

Cultivate Diverse Friendships

In law school, I became close with a conservative classmate who idolized Justice Scalia.  Friends pointed out our similarity to the infamous RBG and Scalia friendship whenever we got together.  We disagreed on far more things than we agreed upon (vehemently, I might add), but we did so in good humor and enjoyed each other's company over many pints at our local watering hole after a long day of classes.  I'll be honest that maintaining these kinds of friendships has gotten a lot harder lately, but I feel like it's also the most important time to keep trying.  

I live in New York (like Ruth, a Jew from Brooklyn) — a "coastal liberal elite bubble" if you listen to the media.  Yet a large number of my friends and relatives veer far away from my political beliefs.  This is where I have channeled RBG most proudly, though I fall far short of her grace.  The stakes feel so much higher now and we interact so much these days on social media, where it often feels like humanity goes to die.  In my darkest moments (i.e., seeing Facebook posts that enrage me), I summon my inner Ruth and set aside my despair in favor of focusing on the traits I enjoy most about the people in my life.  I have yet to unfriend anyone for reasons of political discourse, and encourage you to do the same.  The world will not become a better place by cocooning ourselves into confirmation bias echo chambers.  For a dose of inspiration, watch RBG's eulogy to Justice Scalia.

Passion Yields Perseverance

It is no secret that, despite her impeccable credentials, RBG could not get a job at any law firm.  As she put it, "I was Jewish, a woman, and a mother. The first raised one eyebrow; the second, two; the third made me indubitably inadmissible.”  Before law school, she was demoted at a job for becoming pregnant.  Despite the setbacks Ruth faced, she spent her life trying to make the world a better place for the rest of us.  She settled into a public service position after graduating law school.  She then devoted herself entirely to fighting for the things she cared about and made her mark on the legal world early on by co-founding the ACLU's Women’s Rights Project to advocate for gender equality and women’s economic rights. 

As a judge, she presided over monumental cases on LGBTQ+ rights, access to reproductive health and services, and gender-based inequities.  Even when her rulings were not in the majority, she demonstrated how to show up even when you’re down: "So that's the dissenter's hope: that they are writing not for today but for tomorrow."  

Fashion Is Not Frivolous

Back in 2014, I saw a video clip of RBG giving Katie Couric a tour of her judicial robe and collar wardrobe.  Seeing it again now is so endearing that I start tearing up.  She was a fashion-conscious woman who dressed well, had her clothes tailored, wore heels well into her 80s, and adorned bright jewelry and even fishnet gloves.  Her outfits were as deliberate as her opinions.  She was unapologetically feminine, at a time when women in white collar professions dressed exclusively in men's style suiting.  Fashion was one of the many ways she was light years ahead of her time. 

The Justice's accessories, especially the collars she wore to mark momentous “majority opinion”and "dissenting" court decisions she issued, have become pop icons.  Banana Republic reissued the dissent collar they designed for her a few years ago, with half of the proceeds going to none other than the ACLU's Women's Rights Project.  I promptly snapped it up.  I've only worn it once come to think of it, at Ms. JD's last in-person Annual Conference on Women in the Law in March 2019, held on RBG's birthday (sigh!).  I will mark Ruth's passing by wearing it on my Zoom meetings going forward.  I wonder how many people will recognize its symbolism.

On a further note, would anyone on this planet think less of RBG as a scholar because she paid mind to what she wore and when she wore it?  For some reason, the perception persists that women who pay attention to what they wear or how they look are somehow less serious or capable in their academics or careers.  Yet studies have shown that grooming, makeup and weight have accounted for higher salaries and perceptions of competence for working women.  I like to think that these things did not matter as they pertained to Justice Ginsburg.  In any case, there's no arguing that rather than detract from her message, her style elevated it, and with it elevated all of us.   

Be Hard of Hearing

“Do you have some good advice you might share with us?” Yes, I do. It comes from my savvy mother-in-law, advice she gave me on my wedding day. “In every good marriage,” she counseled, “it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” I have followed that advice assiduously, and not only at home through 56 years of a marital partnership nonpareil. I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade. 

(Source: Ginsburg, Ruth Bader (2016, Oct. 1), "Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Advice for Living", New York Times, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com.) 

I find this to be the most profoundly helpful - and most difficult - advice to follow.  I write it into wedding guestbooks for friends.  I know my relationships would improve if I put it into practice more often.  I have even developed my own layer of advice to add to Ruth's in that "it helps sometimes to be a little mute."  Dear reader, I have no deeper insights beyond that, because I find this to be the toughest Ruth lesson to follow yet!     

Choose Your Mate Wisely

A strong marriage can help a woman achieve greatness.  In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg advised that "the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is."  As much as Ruth was ahead of her time, so was her husband Martin.  Marty said: “I have been supportive of my wife since the beginning of time, and she has been supportive of me.  It’s not sacrifice; it’s family.”  He cooked, he helped out at home, and most notably, he put her career above his own (even though he was very successful in his own right).  He was the one who helped her get appointed to our highest court!  Their marriage is the stuff of legend and I wish to emulate it just as much as her career accomplishments.  Vogue magazine published a great piece on this prolific man (aptly described as "a proto-feminist unicorn").  The article's title is also a wish I hold for all working women: May Every Woman Find Her Marty Ginsburg

As I grew up, my experiences have led me to this realization on my own as well.  I've learned from relationships with people in high pressure careers that I could not commit to a lifelong partnership where my ambitions would have to take a backseat, or otherwise require me to outsource all aspects of homemaking and childrearing to others.  Many dual-working partners have made it work and I admire them greatly.  For me, it would be incredibly stressful.  So we made a different life choice, albeit one that is becoming increasingly more common.  In fact, I know it to be a few women's secret weapon!  As one half of a thoroughly modern marriage with my husband taking on the role of stay at home partner, I feel like we have made the space I need for my career and family to thrive over the long haul.  I just may have found my Marty.

You Can Have a Rich Career & Family Life

Justice Ginsburg defined her place in our profession and established her legacy as a working mother and champion for women, both personally and professionally.  She credited having a baby during law school for helping her maintain perspective.  “I think I had better balance, better sense of proportions of what matters.  I felt each part of my life gave me respite from the other.”  It can be exhausting and overwhelming, but many women report finding renewed efficiency, resolve and perspective from the experience.  I can attest to that.

One of my favorite anecdotes about Ruth's working motherhood is a move that's bold even by today's standards.  She famously told her child's school to alternate calling her husband and her, so as not to be the default parent responding to childcare matters while at work.  “This child has two parents.  Please alternate calls.  It’s his father’s turn.”  At work and at home, the woman always stood up for what's right and fair.  When my kids reach school age, with the luxury of a stay at home spouse, I will go one step further.  There will be no alternating; all callers will be directed exclusively to their dad.


There is so much more to be said about this special woman and the impact she had on so many individuals and society as a whole.  My joining Ms. JD's board was partly inspired by RBG's championing of women's rights.  By continuing to aggressively advocate for a more egalitarian society, we will forever honor her memory and preserve her legacy.

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