In January of 2017, the streets of Washington D.C. were filled with an opposing sea of tourists: those who were there to attend the 45th Presidential Election, and those who planned their trip prior to November with the intention of witnessing the first woman President be sworn into office. I, at age 17, was one of the latter. In finding things to occupy my time that did not involve a political rally, I insisted on waking up early to wait for hours in the brisk winter air in order to enter the Supreme Court during a hearing. I remember walking into the Courtroom room, immediately urging for a spot to sit on the left, placing myself in front of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s seat. I stared in awe for the full three minutes — before the next group would be brought in — at the sight of this significant woman. She looked small as she shrunk into the back of her chair and stood just above five feet tall, but she had the strength to continually fight to prove that a woman, like me, should hold bodily autonomy.
On Friday, Sept. 18, the Supreme Court announced that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died of pancreatic cancer. While not a complete shock to those following her several battles with cancer and multiple hospital admissions across the past few months, her death marks a great loss as we reflect upon her legacy of fighting for women’s equality, and dread the turmoil that the future of the Supreme Court is sure to bring.
Ginsburg has served as one of the nation’s forefronters in pushing forward and protecting women’s rights, starting with her education pursuit during the 1940s and following through her time as Justice. While attending Harvard Law School, she was one of nine women students enrolled, placing her amongst the few students at the time fighting to create a place for women within higher education, especially in the legal field.
In 1996, Ginsburg brought her personal experience of discrimination in education to the deliberation of United States v. Virginia, which ruled that the last all-male public university was in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Ginsberg spearheaded the majority opinion, writing that the public university’s defense of “the way women are,” would “no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.”
Amongst a long list of work at ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and many rulings in 27 years as Justice, Ginsberg is most often revered for her active part in defending a 1973 Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade, which ensures women’s right to privacy and thereby ruling that “a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy” is protected by the Constitution. When Ginsberg took her seat in 1993, her adamant support of abortion rights became a center focus of her appointement.
“It is essential to woman’s equality with man that she be the decision maker, that her choice be controlling,” she said. “If you impose restraints that impede her choice, you are disadvantaging her because of her sex.” Regardless of her controversial stance in defense of a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, she was confirmed by the Senate with a 96 – 3 approval vote. Throughout her time on the Supreme Court, she continued to stress that a woman’s right to abortion was a matter of equal protection rather than privacy, emphasizing the effect of sexual discrimination due to pregnancy.
With the 2020 Presidential Election only 46 days away, Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate Mitch McConnell has already stated that “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor.” Until Ginsberg’s passing, the Supreme Court’s political leanings had been balanced between liberal and conservative, with four justices considered liberal (including Ginsberg), and five justices considered conservative. The current administration has expressed their disapproval of abortion rights, with Trump claiming in his 2016 campaign that he would “automatically” overturn Roe v. Wade if given the opportunity to appoint multiple justices to the Supreme Court. With Trump’s pro-life stance and the conservative leaning of the Supreme Court, the future of the 1973 ruling is threatened.
Before her death, Ginsburg spoke her final recorded words to her granddaughter, saying, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” In writing this, I am brought back to that moment in the Supreme Court Courtroom nearly four years ago. In my three minutes of awe, I could not believe that the woman who was a large contributor to why my friends and I have never had to worry about our medical rights and privacy was sitting in front of me. I had never known that lack of control, that fear of sexuality. I felt anger at politicians who argue against women’s right to choose, but at least I was still protected by law. After Ginsburg’s death and with the possibility of the current administration appointing her replacement, I fear that the ruling I have relied on to protect me will be taken away.
“I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Today’s young women, falling somewhere between Millenial and Gen-Z, have come of age during a rapidly developing time of feminist history. Between navigating political polarization at the college level, to the development of the #MeToo Movement, today’s twenty-something-year-olds have had the opportunity to fight in order to retain the past development of women’s rights, while aiming to continue the work of those who fought before them. We have been protected by rulings such as Roe v. Wade, and have watched as women of diverse backgrounds claim their space in leadership. We have grown up following the footsteps of trailblazers like Ginsburg by following her words and believing, in our hearts, that “women belong in all places where decisions are being made” despite the struggles of the female experience that may dishearten us.
Feature image: Emerson Little – Photos Editor / Quaker Campus