Growing up, I dreamed of becoming an attorney, even a judge. My dreams were wide open, and anything was possible I was told. I succeeded throughout high school and college and ultimately had the opportunity to attend law school. I had no fear of gender bias going to law school; I had never thought about what it would be like to be the minority in the class. I felt at home in each classroom setting, and I graduated confidently in the top ten percent of my law school class. None of that would have happened without the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg blazing the trail for me, but I didn’t know that until now.
The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing September 28, 2020, felt like a parting in the sea for the nation or at least that was my impression from the press’ coverage. Because of this, I felt her death much more than I expected. After witnessing her funeral at the U.S. Supreme Court and seeing video of her lying in state – a first for a woman at the U.S. Capitol, I began to open my eyes. I was moved to tears when I saw over one hundred former law clerks standing at attention as her honorary pallbearers on the steps of the Supreme Court. I began reading about her life in memoriam. Overall, I realized there are three lessons I have learned from her:
- Her gender did not stop her from doing anything so it should never stop me.
- Her dedication to a healthy lifestyle led her to exercise consistently so I should not let up.
- Her marriage with her husband was a success because it was a partnership so I need to follow her model.
First, she fought to end gender discrimination by putting herself on the line. I didn’t know my history when I entered law school in the fall of 2003. Our class was just over fifty percent women. This trend was a new phenomenon, but I didn’t understand or appreciate the difference at that time. It was all I knew from my experience of school, including college. Surrounded in class with almost equal representation of men and women, I thought this was normal. I had never thought about what it had been like to attend law school as a woman in the 1950s until now. Her courage opened doors for me to attend law school in a class filled with over half female students. I appreciate my experience in the classroom and in my career practicing law for the U.S. government much more now having read what challenges she was faced with.
The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsberg was one of only nine women in her law school class. How would that have felt? Uncomfortable? Intimidating? Yes, I would imagine both. However, she succeeded. She graduated from law school despite the gender hurdle and personal setbacks. Specifically, her husband was diagnosed and fought testicular cancer with her loving care and devotion during law school while they were married with a baby. They succeeded doing what they had to do to while being affronted with as many personal and professional challenges at one time as I could imagine.
One challenge that she had to face was what to do when her husband graduated from law school. He was one year ahead of her and was offered a job in New York. She ended up having to transfer from Harvard law school to Columbia law school to be able to live with her husband[i]. They already had a child together, a family unit, and yet the dean of the Harvard law school would not allow her to complete course work for her third and final year of law school while living in New York. She persevered though, transferred, and finished law school at Columbia University in New York.
I can relate to this dilemma because I also transferred after my second year of law school from Saint Louis University to Loyola University in Chicago to live with my husband in Chicago while he continued residency at the University of Illinois Chicago campus. Having chosen to get married after my second year, I applied to be a visiting student at Loyola, and thankfully I was accepted through a relatively easy application process. It makes me wonder now if this application process was easier because these institutions have learned from women like the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s experience. I am thankful that she led the way there as well showing me and all others that you can put your marriage and family first and find a way to overcome institutional bureaucracy.
Second, the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg must have thought exercise was as important as I think it is. It was at least important enough to her that she worked out with a personal trainer for many years. This makes me feel validated for continuing to devote my time to running, yoga and overall well-being. Over the past weeks, I have been surprised and placed in a state of wonder at the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s achievements and honors. Some of these have been bestowed upon her posthumously, but I hope she knew they were coming. Her many accomplishments were attained professionally and personally with a diligence and humbleness that is astonishing. Her strength must have been great to withstand almost undoubted gender discrimination in her career and personal life, but also her strength seems to have been that of quiet fortitude continuing to weight-train and do push-ups during her battles against cancer.
“I found each time that when I’m active,” she said in 2019, “I’m much better than if I’m just lying about and feeling sorry for myself.”[ii]
One of the most poignant moments of her funeral services and the first-ever lying in state of a woman and a Jewish American in the U.S. Capitol building (how can it be that it has taken until 2020 for both of those monumental milestones to happen?), was when her trainer saluted her with three pushups. Her tenacity must have been so impressive to him. Her perseverance to have continued to be active to the end is impressive to me. The lesson for me from her in this area of life is to continue to have the attitude of perseverance in all things – professionally, personally, and even with exercising. I must keep persevering and place it as a high priority in life. By her prioritizing perseverance even with exercise, I know it must be elevated in importance.
Finally, her 56 years of marriage with her husband, Martin D. Ginsberg, was built on love and secured with respectful partnership. I believe this is the best and only way to live as a happily married couple. I can only seek to emulate her model as a devoted, caring wife and equal partner with her husband. How amazing that during such a male-dominated time in the practice of law, her husband chose to push her career to the highest peak, even while continuing to practice law himself. My next step in getting to know RBG as she is called is to watch the documentaries about her life, “On the Basis of Sex,” and, “RBG.”
I am grateful to have found this perspective about her life. I am grateful even more so for her breaking down walls for me and all my classmates in law school. May she rest in peace.
© 2020 Megan Davia Mikhail
[i] Rachel E. Greenspan, “‘The Only Person I Have Loved.’ Inside Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s History-Shaping Marriage of Equals” available at: https://time.com/5488428/ruth-bader-ginsburg-marriage-equals/
[ii] Emily Cochrane, New York Times available at: https://www.nytimes.com/live/2020/09/25/us/ruth-bader-ginsburg-lie-in-state-live-updates