Many of us who in 2015 cheered the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, which recognized same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, would admit, if we’re honest, that we had not taken the idea seriously either when we first heard it discussed years earlier. But a lawyer named Evan Wolfson imagined a world where sexual orientation did not determine a person’s access to the legal, financial and emotional benefits of marriage. In 2001 — before the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas overturned a 17-year-old precedent and decriminalized homosexuality as a matter of constitutional law — he founded an organization called Freedom to Marry to bring that world into being.
Mr. Wolfson wasn’t alone in his quest, of course; I could list many other contributors. My point is that during notably dark years for gay rights (the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that kept L.G.B.T.Q. people from serving openly in the military lasted until 2010) it took imagination to suppose that the sun would rise one day on a different landscape. And to cite another significant civil rights breakthrough, it took imagination for the authors of the Americans With Disabilities Act to envision a world in which people with disabilities receive access not as a matter of grace but as a legal right.
It was only late in her career, when the court turned sharply to the right and she began to raise her voice in dissent, that Justice Ginsburg became the iconic R.B.G., fondly dubbed “notorious” and beloved on the left and by women and girls who weren’t particularly politically active. I’ll confess that the R.B.G. mania — the Halloween costumes for little girls, the collars, the mugs and other items decorated with her face — always made me a little uncomfortable. People sometimes gave me such paraphernalia; I thanked them and discreetly tucked the items away.
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate her powerful dissenting opinions or wasn’t cheered by the thought that little girls could have such a role model when I myself had never met a woman who was a lawyer until after I had graduated from college. It was that the stuff, the whole shtick, seemed so kitschy when her actual accomplishments were so subtle and substantive.
But on the night of her death, as I watched the televised images of thousands of people gathering spontaneously in front of the court, I saw the Notorious R.B.G. phenomenon in a different light. Her unlikely status as a popular icon said as much, if not more, about us as it did about her. We needed her. We needed this fragile octogenarian who could get up repeatedly from her sick bed and speak truth to power. (“You can’t speak TRUTH without RUTH,” as a popular saying went.)
We needed her to call out Donald Trump as a “faker,” even though judges aren’t supposed to say such things and she had to eat her words. We projected onto her our fears about the course of events at the court and in the law, and our hopes that her cleareyed, always civil dissection of where her colleagues had gone wrong would somehow bring them around. We needed her.
We still do.
Instagram Live + Linda Greenhouse will discuss Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy and what comes next for the Supreme Court with editorial board member Lauren Kelley at 3 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, Sept. 29, at @nytopinion.
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