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Corinna Barrett Lain column: What would RBG do?
In Memoriam

Corinna Barrett Lain column: What would RBG do?

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Some might look at Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death as a welcome opportunity to fill yet another Supreme Court seat. But that would miss what just happened in this moment in time.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was more than a jurist, more than a feminist, more than a champion of equality and more than a cultural icon.

She was one of those people who comes along once in a very great while and literally changes the course of history — a titan of the law whose accomplishments only were matched by the sheer difficulty of the challenges she faced along the way.

Feeling discouraged and in despair? There is a lesson for us here.

The weeks to come surely will highlight RBG’s many accomplishments. She was tied for first in her class in law school, and became a law professor when there only were 20 female law professors in the entire country. Her work with the American Civil Liberties Union systematically dismantled the law’s role in gender discrimination, resulting in five wins before the very Supreme Court she later would join. RBG was the second female justice on the court and the first female Jewish justice. Over time, she became the senior leader of the court’s liberal wing, writing fiery dissents that earned her the name “Notorious RBG.”

Yet for every moment of triumph, RBG first overcame a moment of defeat.

In law school, RBG routinely faced the petty indignities of being a woman trying to break into a man’s world. The stories are legion. And as if that were not enough, she also faced a Herculean challenge midway through it: Her husband, who also was a law student, was diagnosed with cancer. What happened next is the stuff legends are made of. RBG attended her classes and his — and took care of their toddler and managed to earn a spot on the Harvard Law Review in the process. Sleep, she later would say, was a luxury.

Despite her unparalleled success in law school, RBG couldn’t land a coveted clerkship because no judge wanted to hire a woman. A mentor did some arm-twisting and she managed to get a spot. Her judge came to admire and respect her, keeping her two years rather than the typical one.

Yet even then, she remembered her judge giving another judge a ride, with her in the backseat. She had asked the other judge a question, and he had answered, as if talking to the windshield from the front passenger seat, “Young lady, I’m not looking at you.” We only can imagine the sting of the humiliation she must have felt.

This was the beginning of a long road for RBG. When she landed a job as a law professor, she was told that her salary would be less than her male counterparts because she had a husband who already was making good money. And when she decided to challenge sexism in the law, she faced a seemingly impenetrable barrier — countless statutes formalizing gender inequality and a long line of legal decisions upholding them.

RBG wasn’t the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She didn’t lead marches with throngs of people following her, mobilizing for change. She was just one person — one very small person who became larger than life by taking on challenges that ordinary people like you and me would have said are too tough to tackle.

Time and again, RBG found herself face to face with a brick wall. Her signature move was to keep banging her head against it until the wall finally crumbled.

The life story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a story of exceptional intellect, an abiding sense of justice and sheer determination to make change. How do we honor a person who had such a profound impact?

We do it by fighting, hard.

RBG’s fight was for gender equality. The late Justice Antonin Scalia, a dear friend of hers, once called her the Thurgood Marshall of that cause. But RBG’s cause also was much broader than that. The wellspring of her fight was equality, justice, righteousness — what it means to be a good human being.

We were further from those values before RBG joined the fight. She brought passion, energy and commitment to the cause. She’d want us to do the same.

The good news is that we don’t have to be extraordinary. We each just have to do our part. We have to vote like our democracy depends on it (because it does). We have to act like these values are vital to our humanity (because they are).

Democracy is worth fighting for. Equality is worth fighting for. Justice is worth fighting for. Character, kindness and truth — these all are worth fighting for. And RBG showed us exactly how it is done.

WWRBGD — What would RBG do? She would turn despair into determination. She would tell you to fight, to pick up the mantle and to finish the good work she had begun.

RBG fought the good fight until the very end. Now it’s our turn.

Corinna Barrett Lain is the S.D. Roberts and Sandra Moore Professor of Law at the University of Richmond. She is a legal historian who studies Supreme Court decision-making. Contact her at:

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