Much will be written about the rulings and legal legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the wake of her passing on Friday at the age of 87. Ginsberg’s life story and legacy are extraordinary.
While Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – or the ‘notorious RBG’ as she became known in later years – graduated first in her class at Columbia Law School in 1959, she couldn’t find a job. Rejected as a Supreme Court clerkship because she was a woman, she began her legal career as a law professor going on to be a pioneering advocate for women’s legal rights in the 1970s. Ironically, the discrimination which kept her from the career path she had trained for ultimately paved her path to being appointed to the highest court in the land – just the second woman to do so – where she arguably became its most prominent member.
However in the midst of this stormy time, I want to focus on the mindset that made Ginsberg the indomitable ‘notorious’ force that she was. How she approached life, and dealt with her challenges. She had her share. To that end, here is a little of Ginsberg’s wisdom that may help you in forging your own legacy and rising to your own challenges in a year that has been brimming with them.
Adversity: Turn your setbacks into opportunities
You think about what would have happened … Suppose I had gotten a job as a permanent associate. Probably I would have climbed up the ladder and today I would be a retired partner. So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great good fortune.” (from a conversation in the Makers)
“I do think that I was born under a very bright star,” she said in an NPR interview. “Because if you think about my life, I get out of law school. I have top grades. No law firm in the city of New York will hire me. I end up teaching; it gave me time to devote to the movement for evening out the rights of women and men. ” How Ginsberg responded to her own setbacks is testament to the fact that no setback is final and sometimes those storms we think are ruining our path are actually revealing it.
Disagree, Agreeably: Have the courage to listen before you dissent
Ginsberg always said that you can disagree without being disagreeable. Responding to questions about her courage to dissent from her fellow U.S. Supreme Court justices, she said, “Dissent speaks to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘my colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way,’ but the greatest dissents do become court opinions.”
Yet as passionate as Ginsberg felt about her causes, she also felt it was vital to lead the charge on change in ways that built followership. “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you,” she said. She was strident in her belief that having the courage to listen is no less important than the courage to speak up: “I’m a very strong believer in listening and learning from others.”
Ginsburg’s public friendship with her ideological opponent on the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Scalia, was testament to her belief that one could disagree with someone yet still hold them in high regard. She felt strongly that the court as an institution was strengthened by respectful debate, no matter how polarized its members were. It echoes Lincoln’s insistence that his cabinet include his political opponents, arguing that better decisions were made when people didn’t think alike.
Kids and career: Embrace the trade-offs
“You can’t have it all, all at once,” Ginsberg once said regarding the challenges of pursuing a career while raising children (she had two). “When I started law school, my daughter Jane was 14 months. I attribute my success in law school largely to Jane. I went to class about 8:30, and I came home at 4 o’clock. That was children’s hour. It was a total break in my day. And children’s hour continued until Jane went to sleep. Then, I was happy to go back to the books. So, I felt each part of my life gave me respite from the other. …Having Jane gave me a better sense of what life is. ” (The Atlantic, 2017.)
Anger: Don’t let it distract you from the end game
Ginsberg was both a fiercely passionate yet highly measured woman; a demure firebrand who felt emotions deeply without being ruled by them. “Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade,” she once said. Her commitment to focusing on the highest intention she sought to achieve was a guiding force throughout her career.
“Don’t be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, resentment,” she said. “These just zap energy and waste time.” And when others were in the grip of angry? “When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out.”
Feminism: A liberating cause for women and men
Ginsberg always framed feminism as a cause that was in the best interest of all humanity; one that ultimately liberated not just women, but also men, to pursue their passions and use their talents in ways that best served the world.
“Feminism [is the] notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents and not be held back by manmade barriers. … I think the simplest explanation, and one that captures the idea, is a song that Marlo Thomas sang, ‘Free to be You and Me.’ Free to be, if you were a girl—doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Anything you want to be. And if you’re a boy, and you like teaching, you like nursing, you would like to have a doll, that’s OK too. That notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers—man made barriers, certainly not heaven sent.”
She viewed change as incremental. “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time,” Ginsberg said, later stating that the need to press for change on the supreme court will be complete when nine women sit on its bench. “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”
Criticism: Press on and don’t over-personalize it
Ginsberg was criticized, admonished, rejected, and ridiculed many times. Sure, it deflated her – temporarily – but she never let other people’s opinions defeat her.
“I’m dejected, but only momentarily, when I can’t get the fifth vote for something I think is very important. But then you go on to the next challenge and you give it your all. You know that these important issues are not going to go away. They are going to come back again and again. There’ll be another time, another day.” (via The Record)
Ginsberg was never defined by what others thought or did. She defined herself.
Marriage: Accommodate and champion each other
Ginsberg’s view of marriage is one of true partnership and often spoke of her husband Marty – who passed away in 2010 – as a true partner in life.
“If you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it. I had a life partner who thought my work was as important as his, and I think that made all the difference for me,” she said of her husband of 56 years.
“In the course of a marriage, one accommodates the other,” she said. She also believed that true equality could only be achieved “when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.”
Life Legacy: Use your talents for beyond yourself
When asked about the key to her own career success and longevity, Ginsberg encouraged others to look outside of themselves for ways to improve on what already is.
“If you want to be a true professional, do something outside yourself,” she said. In a 2015 interview, she shared that she wanted to be remembered as “someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability.”
As President Trump prepares to nominate her replacement, the liberals who criticized her decision not to retire during the Obama presidency will be wishing she had. Yet her commitment to use her talents for good was ultimately what sustained her and kept her working hard until near the very end.
Ginsberg blazed a brave path for women – not just in the judiciary, and not just in the United States, but for women the world over. Yet just as she wasn’t defined by those who discriminated against her because of her gender, she was not defined by her gender. She was a woman who held herself in her power and used whatever personal power she had in the early days to ultimately help redefine power.
In having the courage to stand by her beliefs, to voice them despite the dissent and to not let fear of failure keep her small, she ultimately became a role model for leadership, true leadership, courageous leadership, the world over.
Her life, leadership and legacy shine a torch onto the path ahead for all who aspire to use their unique talents to better the world.