Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Death Should Not Be the End of Liberalism

Waking up to the news that supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed away certainly did not make for a great start to the weekend. The flood of despair, sadness, frustration, and panic that followed on Twitter also did not help. Undoubtedly, her death is incredibly sad. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an icon of feminism, equality, and environmentalism and a liberal figurehead. She will be remembered for not only intellectually defending civil liberties, reproductive rights, legal equality, first amendment rights and democracy, but for her thorough, smart questioning of witnesses and the status quo and her incredible commitment to her beliefs. Her death leaves a gaping hole in liberal politics, but importantly, it does not erase her efforts or those of her supporters. 

Born in 1933 to Jewish parents in Brooklyn, her mother always advocated for her education and empowerment. Much of this stemmed from the opportunities her mother had missed out on herself – even though she possessed great intellect, she had to leave education early and became a factory worker. This discrepancy between her mother’s potential and life angered Ginsburg. She believed what her mother had taught her: everyone should have the chance to fulfill their potential, regardless of gender, religion, or race. 

After her mother’s early death, Ginsburg became a trailblazer. After overcoming many obstacles and discouragements she studied at Cornell, then Harvard Law. Afterwards, she experienced a string of job rejections – not because of her abilities, but because she was a woman. Ginsburg would, however, have none of it. Founding the ACLU’s Women’s Right Project, she fought (and won) hundreds of gender discrimination cases. From demanding equal employment opportunities to equality in estate battles, finances, military compensation, and state benefits, she overhauled the US justice system. Empowered women empower women – and so her legal battles contributed immensely to the feminist revolution, which changed America and much of the world. Much of Ginsburg’s impact therefore happened before she became a supreme court justice. 

Her 27 years on the supreme court should be seen as a second part to her story, rather than its entirety. She continued fighting for those who are excluded from the American Dream, but more often than not she served as a reasoning voice (and vote) on the court, taming the thoughts and arguments of her conservative colleagues. This is an equally important responsibility – especially in the current political climate in the US – but Ginsburg created less change during this time. Her role developed from trailblazing to monitoring. Nevertheless, her work on the supreme court deserves endless recognition. She artfully and passionately used her position to expand her fight into new spheres – equal rights for members of the LGBTQ+ community and those with disabilities and women’s health are especially noteworthy. 

Her death has raised a flurry of concerns regarding the future of US politics and its drift towards the right. Ginsburg was commonly regarded as a liberal stalwart, the only chance for liberal values to thrive. Planned Parenthood, who have been under constant attack from conservative Republicans, stated that “the fate of our rights” depended on her replacement. And it is true that if President Trump were to appoint a conservative judge to replace Ginsburg, it could slow down or even reverse liberal progress. 

But Trump is not technically allowed to replace Ginsburg – legally, this would be the responsibility of the incoming President. Mitch McConnell has stated that Trump will try to appoint a new judge before the election, but there has already been backlash. This is especially relevant as four years ago, when President Obama faced a similar situation, Trump held Obama to this law. Breaking it himself would therefore be incredibly hypocritical and damage Trump’s image further, potentially endangering re-election chances. Instead of panicking, liberalists must hold Trump accountable, increase public pressure on him to comply with the law and continue their fight. This is their only chance to restrain him. 

Ginsburg herself should serve as motivation to do so. In a rare interview she gave in 2017 to the BBC, one of her main points was that America is a pendulum. No matter how far it swings in one direction, it will eventually swing back. Her undying faith in this idea should serve as an encouragement. To stay courageous and strong, to fight for underrepresented groups that are suffering and being discriminated against and for creating positive change. 

The impact she had before joining the supreme court should make us especially hopeful. Of course, it is important for liberal powerhouses like Ginsburg to occupy public space and positions that attract attention and give them influence. However, her example shows that change can also come from ‘ordinary’ citizens, from the bottom up. When she was fighting for gender equality and feminism, no one in the supreme court or government was on her side. Yet, her impact was immense. 

Ginsburg was hopeful – in the BBC interview she also positioned herself as optimistic and positive about grassroots movements, about the calibre of people fighting right-wing politics and defending liberal values. She believed today’s activists and protestors could be as influential as she was. This should motivate them to continue their fight and honour her legacy by doing so. Her death is tragic, but it cannot be equated to the death of the liberal movement and progress. The footprints she leaves behind might be incredibly large – but they can and will be filled, whether by an individual or a collective. 

Words by Sophie Kiderlin.

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