The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a terrible loss for America. It’s an even greater loss for her family and close friends. She was, by all accounts, beloved. The headlines today mourn the loss of the “role model for female lawyers” and call her a “feminist icon.” This is all true, but it’s also needlessly limiting. Ginsburg was not only a model for lawyers who happen to be women, she was a model for all lawyers. She was not only a feminist icon, she was an icon. She was brilliant—not brilliant for a woman, but fully brilliant.
When she was asked when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court, she answered, “When there are nine.”
She understood that as long as the world viewed female justices as remarkable solely based on their sex, we had not yet won the battle for equality. Only when the appointment of female justices becomes unremarkable will we be equal. This is absolutely true, and not just for Supreme Court justices.
I’ve been watching a lot of tennis lately, particularly women’s tennis. This week, one of the male commentators at the Italian Open called female tennis players girls. He quickly corrected himself, but shortly after that another commentator noted that whenever young women rise up in tennis it is considered a great thing for for women’s tennis. No one ever says a male player is great for men’s tennis. Men get to be great, full stop. Women have to be great for womankind. When Novak Djokovic behaved like a spoiled boy and sent a tennis ball flying into the neck of a line judge, no one argued that it reflected badly on every male tennis player. If a woman did the same, you can bet people would be talking about how it harms women’s tennis.
If one woman does something either remarkable or disgraceful, it is seen as a reflection on all women. If one man does something remarkable or disgraceful, it is considered only a mark against him. And, sometimes, not even that. Men get to be angry, petulant, and childish without much consequence. Just look to Brett Kavanaugh if you have any doubt about that. Can you imagine a woman crying during her confirmation hearing and still getting a spot on the court? Only men are allowed to weep. Only men are allowed to throw tantrums.
We will not be truly equal until our presence is unremarkable on the Supreme Court and on the tennis court. We won’t be equal until one of us can behave badly without it serving as a referendum on the rest of us. Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent her life fighting for this level of equality. She made a lot of progress, but we are not there yet. The best thing we can do to honor her memory is to keep striving for the sort of equality that makes powerful women so common that they are unremarkable.
In the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
Rest in peace, RBG. We’ll take it from here.