Ruth Bader Ginsburg
March 15, 1933 – September 18, 2020
She changed the world.
We invited our readers to contribute their thoughts on this devastating loss by submitting their own short commentaries, eulogies, reveries or think pieces to us for publication in a special issue. As always, our readers stepped up to the challenge. The poetry and prose poured in – and it was heartwarming, heart-wrenching and all quite wonderful. We wish we could publish all of it – but there were so many, and all so good. Here is a generous sampling.
Many, many thanks to our talented and thoughtful readers for these contributions. Much gratitude, also, to all the members of the Persimmon Tree editorial board. Without their constant, caring efforts, this special supplement could not have happened.
I am Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020)
I wear collars over my robes,
for women are still collared and leashed
by laws not of their choosing.
I wear what the French call jabots—
a word aptly derived from a bird’s crop,
a place to store food and shore up supplies
in times of battle and depletion of support.
Jabot, originates, too, in the word jaw—
evoking Alice Paul’s iron-jawed angels,
who, as Silent Sentinels, picketed
Woodrow Wilson’s White House for suffrage.
In the beginning, jabots were frills on men’s shirts—
unisex fashion since Queen Elizabeth the First.
For my first portrait with Justice Brett Kavanaugh,
I wear my prickly Stella & Dot Pegasus necklace—
gold spiky feathers in an arc for the mythical
winged horse that helped defeat the chimera,
brought down lightning and thunder
from Olympus, and is a muse of poetry.
When I’m in dissent with rulings,
I wear my Banana Republic jabot—
stripes of rhinestone cabochons on black felt,
to say “Have you gone bananas?
Since my 1993 investment, I’ve worked
tirelessly to protect what the ACLU
initiated in The Women’s Rights Project—
against all forms of gender discrimination.
I have suffered from widowhood, colon cancer,
pancreatic cancer, broken ribs, more cancer.
My detractors keep pressing me to retire—
but I open my closet each day, don my shields.
My favorite is the one with South African pearls
crocheted into lace—which I wore
for President Barack Obama’s
first address to Congress—pearls
for tears we have shed for injustices;
pearls for wisdom, too often strewn into mud;
pearls for making something beautiful
of dirt, irritation, violence.
I die on Rosh Hashanah, before the 2020 election.
Not to worry. By Jewish lore, she who dies on the New Year
is deemed a Tzaddik, a righteous person for eternity.
And “you can’t spell truth without Ruth!”
I live through all who live in truth
and who benefit from my words—
I lift up the heavy veils of time. Oyez! Oyez!
When one of us does—All Rise!
On the morning of September 18, I vowed I would not go outside until the rain began to fall and Seattle’s Air Quality Index inched downward from Unhealthy for Everyone.
By 4 p.m., raindrops were spattering. By 4:45, the AQI was dropping. I laced up my shoes, praying this might be the end of the ten-day wildfire smoke siege.
My phone pinged. A text from my daughter. “Just heard the news. Trying not to be terrified.” Above her words, the headline: “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Dies at 87.”
I opened the door, and there was my husband, staring at his phone. We embraced, long and tight.
As I walked, texts popped up, mostly variations on: Nooooooo.
But among them was one from my friend Dana: “She died on one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. That means she was a great Tzadik, one of the Righteous.”
I shared Dana’s words with everyone. Then I put my phone away and walked. Watching the thirsty trees strain towards every drop of sooty rain. Thinking about Ruth. About how all through the ‘70s, while I was just trying to grow from awkward sapling to college graduate, while I was preoccupied with literature, lust, love – all that time, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was working hard to create a future for my generation that would be different from the one she had stepped into, so bright and determined, in the mid-‘50s.
My first post-college job was at a Boston publishing company. The personnel director told me that “all our young women start as secretaries, and all our young men as sales reps.” I could type. I took the job.
A few years and moves later, I decided to try hard to break into journalism. I put in my application at Chicago’s best shot for young greenhorns, the City News Bureau, a wire service that fed stories to the Tribune and Sun-Times. All that fall, while I typed my way through one temp job after another, I called City News every two weeks.
Finally, a few days before Christmas, the general manager called me. “I’m only offering this job to you because I’m desperate,” he said. There were other women on staff by then, but he told me he was reluctant to hire me because he believed graduates of women’s colleges, like mine, were too soft for the job.
Don’t worry, I said. I was there on scholarship. I’m a hard worker.
But back to Ruth. It was that notion of women as “soft” that got her fired up. By 1980, she had argued six gender equity cases before the Supreme Court, and won five. The City News manager, a former labor reporter, would have known that. Unlike uninformed, 23-year-old me.
I know now.
May her memory be a blessing.
The Moon Over My Mother’s House, Brooklyn 1956
could never be seen;
what I remember are clotheslines
and antennas and forgotten apple trees,
fruit rotting from above
then falling to unweeded soil.
Had she wanted to see the moon
would she have known where to look?
Her life being sworn to the ground,
cemented to the day-to-day, pulling
clothes off a line, quickly,
because of unexpected rain.
The moon over my house today
has gone through many phases
now waxing bright, close to our north star,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
navigating us from darkness
making all women look up
and face true north
to find the way home.
Thank you RBG, may your memory be a blessing.
I stood on the roof of Jones Hall Cafeteria as the parade plodded by, car after car. Horns honked. Music blared from speakers. Naked bodies adorned car hoods. Truck beds were overfilled with lithe, exposed college students swaying, arms raised above their heads as they danced. My suitemates and dozens more took off their tops, then threw their bras to the crowd of onlookers lining the street below. Security guards leaned against their cars at the intersection where the parade turned toward the row of fraternity and sorority houses. That night Mizzou was named the winner of the “most student streakers at any university!”
The ‘70s felt abundant, fat with opportunity and fraught with worry that friends in Vietnam would not come back. I tied my beaded headband; I flashed the peace sign to others as a greeting. My all-nighters were fueled by the song, “I am Woman.” I was confident, believed I could do anything. At the same time, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was finding weak spots in the Constitution. Case by case, she interpreted the law to include important women’s rights and gender equality. It was like finding a crack in a concrete floor; water seeps into the hairline fault and widens it until the flood gates force it open.
I graduated and settled into a career, marriage, and family. I gained rights partly because of Ginsburg’s work in the courts and her part in the Women’s Liberation movement. I opened credit card accounts without my husband’s permission, expected my salary to be the same as my male counterpart’s, and when I got pregnant, there was no discrimination. Ginsburg continued to stoke the fire until her death. Her majority opinions supported women entering military institutions that barred females. Her dissents were written to feed embers of resistance to the status quo.
I do one more pushup from The RBG Workout book and collapse from my plank much sooner than the 87-year-old justice would have. It has been fifty years, and I am indebted to the notorious RBG. She helped to shape my life, creating possibilities that became promises for both men and women. Ginsburg explained “feminism” by stating that it was like the Marlo Thomas album, “Free to Be You and Me.” With an attitude of “dissent,” we must safeguard the freedoms we now hold. Thanks, RBG.
Image by Ken Butler
Square becomes kite becomes song.
Even the act of remembrance creases the truth.
two Great Egrets, hung like mammoth ornaments
in the tallest cottonwood, depleted
by overnight migration, spangled white
in pleated wings, nestled against papery green,
all day they punctuate the view, preening,
folding, unfolding, then resting still
as stone. Until the sun falls at last
over the lip of earth and a white comma of
new moon appears. Now they gather to each other—
lift, tucking their elegant necks, circling
once, twice, tracing a wider arc to catch
the flow as their buoyant, steady wings
beat the drum of darkness.
I Have to Believe That
The nomination of a woman to fill the seat vacated by Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been announced, and I am hopeful. Ruth Bader Ginsburg achieved great progress for women, and we are all grateful for her work to nudge society along to one of equity for us all.
This will not be lost on the newest Justice. She is familiar to me as a person raised Catholic. I am cognizant of the indoctrination that preached high ideals and moral beliefs, but too often failed in delivery because of the weakness of leaders. Where I abandoned the faith, the nominee has embraced it. But I don’t criticize. Rather, I envy it, as the gift Geraldine Ferraro claimed her religion to be many years ago.
I don’t fear this nominee, because she understands the law and she will follow it in the decisions she makes. She appreciates the legacy left by her predecessor. She was a clerk for RBG’s close friend, the late Justice Antonin Scalia. She is a scholar. She will not squander her reputation in the service of a charlatan.
I have to believe that.
Stood for unshakable Truth
Time will be the Proof
who roamed the halls of Madison High,
but not her—she was Kiki, up ahead of
me in school and in every other way
that I could see: one of the coveted crowd,
“the Big Wheels” we called them, and
beautiful she was in her Twirler sweater,
page boy swinging to the beat of her baton.
Oh, Ruthie, it was too late for me then,
so busy as I was, squeezing myself into
the mold that you went on to splinter, but
bless you for my granddaughters—heads
high, striding down that trail you cleared
for them and armed with the very tools
you spent a lifetime crafting with infinite
wit, infinite courage, infinite care—
tools they’ll need to open the rest
of the way forward.
From a Law Student
I was fortunate to have been one of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s law students and to have worked closely with her on a law school task force on clinical education development. Her brilliant mind and her willingness to challenge all ostensibly “settled” assumptions (including existing discriminatory legal doctrines) were always inspiring. In our encounters over the years (including twice as an advocate when she was on the D.C. Circuit), she was always gracious and supportive. I still have her note sending along a copy of her bench dissent in the Ledbetter case.
Descriptions of her being a giant at five feet tall may be overworked, but her legacy cannot be overstated. The legal landscape for women and other marginalized people was transformed by her work. We cannot waste a second now – whether it is sending money to candidates, sitting in to protest at any Senate hearings (or senators’ homes and offices), demonstrating everywhere and anywhere that demonstrating might make a difference, registering people to vote, working to stop voter suppression, and more.
May her memory be a blessing and a call to resistance.
Waltz No. 1 in A major
Talking to RBG In The Dark
who called on Rosh Hashanah eve.
“Prepare yourself, mom. This is really bad.”
I’m thinking illness, car crash,
But it was the news of your death.
I thought of my daughter,
whose first memory is being perched
on my shoulders while her aunt and I
marched for women’s equality
and the right to control our own bodies.
I cried into the honey cake batter,
the cake I was mixing to try and sweeten
this difficult year.
My salt-harsh tears mixed with
the honey and the red wine,
the ginger and the cinnamon.
And that cake stiffened our spines.
And so we will continue to fight
one step at a time, in your memory,
no matter how long it takes.
We’ll start over, if we must.
We will never stop fighting.
And we will never stop saying
it makes me wonder so much about your life… Kaileigh
(from an email I received as I sat down to write this)
It is hard to see silver linings in the darkened skies of America as the added blow of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death spreads both sadness and fear of a future without her. However, the announcement of her death has brought to the forefront something I had begun to catch glimpses of between the tidal waves of outrage, disasters, and deaths we have experienced this year. That silver lining is our granddaughters.
While we were watching our world fall apart, they were watching, too – and they are not having it. They are picking up the mantle of feminism and are just as determined as we were at their age to move it forward. They are skilled in the ways of modern communications. They can get the word out to their sisters in a matter of hours or even minutes. They are skilled at working together, and they welcome everyone to the cause regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, citizenship status, age, or any other categories that may have kept us separated. Our grandsons are also aware and willingly march alongside their wives, friends, classmates, and mothers.
These builders of the future have absorbed our message and are busy creating their own manifesto for a healthier world and a more perfect Union. Their vision is a world far beyond our hopes and dreams. It will be more equitable, empathetic, and unified. I believe they will make it happen.
I turned on the television to learn about Judge Ginsburg’s death expecting to see the faces of her gray-haired generation. Instead, I found the passionate, tear-stained faces of the millennial generation, as heartbroken at her passing as I was.
After four years of watching so much of what we worked for threatened, limited, and even destroyed, we found Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death one tragedy too many. But then I saw the silver lining shining in the faces of the very granddaughters we marched for. They are willing to carry on the women’s work of not only protecting our equal rights but moving the needle forward to true equality for everyone. No exceptions.
Once, A Giant
We’ve lost a mother, mentor, you, who, prodded
by legal roadblocks against Jews, women, mothers,
founded gender equity, pursued, embodied, justice.
In losing you, through tears and grit we know we
must make last those laws you founded to give women
equal pay, equal opportunities. You charged the law
with courage, courting it as woman, mother, Jew.
When equity didn’t exist in pay or opportunities,
you showed the legal system how to change,
courted law charged with courage, defiant
that women must earn equal pay for equal work.
You made law listen, showed it how to change
so women would have choice in reproducing life,
so women could fully use their minds and will.
You showed us how to stand until we’re heard.
That women must have choice in reproducing life
is embodied in your life, court cases. You showed
us how to stand, keep standing, till we’re heard.
We’re here. Working in your stead, we stand.
A Question Answered
Thank you, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for establishing that women have rights in the workplace.
One Sunday in the ‘70s, when I was teaching English part-time at De Anza College, I went to the department office to prepare materials for the following week. An administrator, Alan Simes, approached me.
“Why do you teach?” he asked. ” You don’t have to.”
“I love literature and its values,” I said. I was intimidated by his line of questioning.
I wrote to Ruth Bader Ginsburg about this confrontation on the work force. She answered me through her secretary: “’Keep the strength you know you have. We need good teachers in the public schools. Women in the workplace will prevail.’ – Ruth Bader Ginsburg”
I kept it front-of-drawer, moony agate veined with red.
Now worry hangs, an avalanche of overwhelm
up valley. Days stack. The pile teeters.
My thumb finds its niche, a spoon surface
for my furious rubbing. I never knew when you died.
No one knew I should be told. And other
heroes fall – now RBG, after John Lewis, elders
who taught us. I mourn and worry and hold up
gratitude that they walked our world. Press
forward what the thumb soothes, the righteousness
of commitment and love, the ancientness
of stone survival, blood-red hope bedded in worry.
My hand raised to ask for my voice to be counted too,
the hand that pockets the worry stone for the next need.
Special Friends in the Law
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was my mother Judy’s friend. Daughters of Jewish immigrants, second children, achievers in law school despite sex discrimination, encouraged by supportive lawyer husbands, they met at the Supreme Court in 1994 and bonded immediately.
RBG invited us to a guest seminar and lunch at Touro Law School, seating us with the Dean and Ruth’s husband Martin. After dessert came a surprise announcement by Dean Glickstein: He introduced “Ruth’s friend Edith J. Lapidus, a pioneer lawyer” and summarized Mom’s 70-year career, from litigation and legal encyclopedias to constitutional law. He asked if she had a word of advice for women lawyers. Judy stood up and declared: “Never take no for an answer!”
In 1998, my Significant O and I attended RBG’s guest lecture at Columbia Law School, after which she invited questions. A man in the back row raised his hand, then bragged about his own work, instead of asking a question. Another man did the same, showing off how much he knew. While yet a third male student was bloviating, I felt an elbow in my ribs and heard a stage whisper: “Jacqueline! Ask a question!”
Gulp! I raised my hand. Ruth called on me. “You’ve described women lawyers’ struggle to advance,” I said, “but only men are asking questions. Why is that happening?”
RBG: “We need to be even more assertive!” Then a woman sitting behind us raised her hand, and then another woman. Prof. Jane Ginsburg of Columbia Law was squirming in her seat because that was her mom up there so she couldn’t ask a question. Yet another woman asked one; Ruth answered it – and then it was time to stop. As we filed out, the women crowded around us, thanking me for speaking up.
My mother died on January 3, 1999, during an ice storm. Nobody could go anywhere safely. I spent all day Sunday on the phone. Monday morning, I called the Supreme Court and left a message with Ruth’s assistant. Tuesday morning the phone rang – RBG herself, asking us to excuse her for not flying to Queens for the funeral. She sent us a handwritten note saying how much she admired Judy, how fortunate to have been among her special friends, hoping my sister and I would thrive in health and life, as our mother would have wished.
For 20 years, whenever I could, I attended oral arguments as Justice Ginsburg’s guest and saw her in chambers afterward. Sometimes I brought a lawyer friend; we were always welcomed graciously. When my Significant O died she sent another handwritten note, encouraging me not to despair. When her own husband died, Ruth went to work the next day because “that’s what Marty would have wanted me to do.” That year, after oral arguments, Ruth and I threw our arms around each other, a hug in shared grief.
Eleven months later I asked RBG to write a preface to the anthology I was compiling, poems by widows. She couldn’t promise – she had so many requests on her desk – but she said to send her the manuscript. It took almost a year to find a publisher. As my co-editor and I were about to sign a contract, I called chambers to tell Ruth. That was Thursday. Monday afternoon, a business-size Supreme Court envelope appeared in my mailbox. She had written the foreword immediately.
That generous spirit and exceptional work ethic made Ruth Bader Ginsburg a light unto the nation(s). I mourn her as an advocate and a sister. May her memory be for a blessing.
RBG and Edith J. Lapidus (Judy), Touro Law School, 1997
Elegy for Ruth
a most inconvenient time,
There was much yet to do.
An unkindly death, our Ruth’s,
She did all she could. Worked to master body and mind. To outlast villainy.
in the midst of a final battle, when stakes were still high, hope still green,
an unnatural death,
(so say I).
If Death could take its time,
wait a bit, as it had,
letting months spin out,
marching through May to August and,
why not longer still?
Would it have foiled some monster’s huge narcissistic plan—
—to stretch life’s thread to reach a new glorious dawn?
You came, pledged your loyalty, vowed to fight.
A just person in defense of justice.
Oh, Heavens, how goes the world now?
when Death has stopped our ears and gouged our eyes.
I taught my last World History class in the spring of 2004 to a group of girls at a private school in New York City. We were studying India, specifically the caste system. I went around the room asking each girl to identify her caste based on what her family did for a living. When I got to Clara, she said she thought that since her grandma worked for the government, she would be a Kshatriya. A bit surprised that her grandma would be working for George Bush, given the opinions she had expressed during the year, I asked what her grandma did. Answer: she is on the Supreme Court. Clara’s grandma was, of course, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I would have called her a Brahmin, but Clara knew the rules.