Yesterday was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the beginning of the Jewish High Holidays. They culminate ten days later on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of our world. The period following it is known as the Days of Awe; it’s a time to reflect on and acknowledge transgressions. The Days of Awe end with the holiest of Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur, on which penitents ask forgiveness for their sins.
Yesterday Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Notorious RBG, died. She was 87 and lived a long and by almost all measures successful life. Ginsburg had the good fortune to share most of it with a husband she loved. She parented two children, enjoyed the company of friends, several of whom were her ideological opposite, and fought unapologetically for social justice.
To say she will be missed is such an understatement that I hesitate to even write that phrase. Her departure has initiated what is certain to be a political war, hopefully only of words and legislative deeds. The selection of her replacement will dictate the course of this country, almost as much as will the election or defeat of Donald Trump. More on that at a later time perhaps.
So, amidst what is profound sadness on my part, let me digress for a moment. In the months before my family moved from Virginia to Florida, I was the best baseball player, male or female, in the motley crew of baby boomer sandlot competitors in my post-war neighborhood. At least that was the truth I carried in my mind, knowing almost unconsciously that it would cease to be true as the local boys, as well as my brother, outgrew me in strength and size. Yet, when we got to Florida, it was my brother in the sharp Little League uniform. My position was scorekeeper, baseball’s version of secretary and the only option available.
It was that same year, when I transitioned from elementary to junior high school, that I discovered that I could not put down Key Club as an extracurricular activity in which I was interested. I was inclined in that direction, no doubt, because it was affiliated with the Kiwanis Club of which my father was a member. I hadn’t known the Key Club accepted only males.
When I was a very young child, my mother routinely gave me a doll for Christmas. I preferred playing with other toys and she made the switch to microscopes and chemistry sets once I entered the latter stages of elementary school. After Sputnik made its appearance, I announced that I intended to become a nuclear physicist. That was probably motivated by the fact that my father worked at Langley Air Force Base, the first home of our nation’s space program, and by my pre-adolescent delight at finding a word my peers didn’t know.
What I failed to realize at the time was that most science programs were geared toward, recruited, attracted, and preferred males. I should have caught on to that trend when I was applying to National Science Foundation summer programs in high school; many of the best sounding ones were restricted to young men. My generation was the last one which was consciously taught that a woman’s true profession was homemaker. If she were to work outside the home, she should consider being a secretary (never the boss), a nurse (never the doctor) or a teacher (never the principal).
The best small college in Texas, where we lived when I reached the age of attending such an institution, enrolled only male undergraduates as Freshmen. I hadn’t realized how literal such a term as “Freshman” was until then. Later I discovered many state schools also discriminated against women. Think UNC-G, known to its older alumnae as Woman’s College.
When I entered college, I discovered that women had curfew hours and men did not. As President of the female side of a school’s first coed dorm, I spent part of my time working to get women the same right to late night entry as men had. In my senior year at the University of Houston I was President of something called the Association of Women Students, an organization whose very existence seems preposterous today. As a result of that affiliation, I was also a member of Sparks, a group of women one of whose main duties included dressing in the school colors and forming a line through which our football team could run onto the field at home games. Title IX was not yet the law of the land; women cheered and men secured scholarships and played. Even though I was an English undergraduate major, a fertile ground for female students, I had only one female professor at the U of H.
Thanks in large part to the work of people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, all of that early history is firmly, one hopes, buried in the past. Girls play on the field today. The Lions, Kiwanians, and Rotarians accept women in their ranks. Although there are still fields of science in which female membership remains small, no field of science excludes them and they currently constitute majorities entering Colleges of Medicine and Law. Few schools today would create one set of housekeeping rules for their women students and another for their men. That college in Texas that only accepted male undergraduates provided me, after the passage of anti-discrimination legislation and a few Supreme Court decisions, some argued by RBG, with a scholarship for my Ph.D. in history. (I never had a female history professor during that time, but such would not be the case today.)
Why the digression? I worry that we are at one of those hinge moments in history, when we can create something monstrous or return to a path striving for something good. I have sometimes wished that RBG had retired in time for President Obama to appoint her successor. However, I understood her rationale for staying. She worried that a GOP dominated Senate, would tolerate only the appointment of a moderate. That would mean the Supreme Court would remain cautious at a time when she believed something more than caution was required. She was holding out for a Clinton victory and a Democratic Senate. We were both disappointed.
I have become convinced that we progressive sorts suffer from our belief in fair play. We still retain a sense of shame at transgressing norms. Our default position is more likely to be decency or civility than their opposites. Although I retain some confidence that we will not develop a dystopian Handmaid’s Tale America, the ripples of unrestrained white testosterone that circulate at a Trump Rally or in Twitter Storms sometimes make me doubt equality or equal justice is an achievable goal in the United States.
Democracy is a fragile thing. We have long taken it for granted, although our founders repeatedly told us it had to be reaffirmed by each generation. Vigilance, they claimed, was a necessary partner of democracy, because without it democracy could be destroyed. Bader Ginsburg remained on the court, because she believed the times called for such vigilance in order to retain the rights for which she and her allies struggled.
My generation is a bridge generation. Parts of an older order collapsed, a little too late for me to achieve Little League glory, but soon enough for me to pursue a couple of doctorates, become a principal, and teach at a university. Exceptional women were always able to work at the edges of a male-dominated society. They were usually unacknowledged, but there all the same. What Bader Ginsburg did was make it possible for not so exceptional women like me to work there, too. And, to be there when the edges faded and we moved closer to the mainstream.
I am a member of the “You’ve come a long way, baby” generation. That’s part of the luck of the draw, of timing and placement beyond anything over which I had control. I and thousands upon thousands of women like me succeeded, for those of you with a Christian theology bent, by grace. And by the good, hard, sustained work of the Ruth Bader Ginsburgs of my world.
Jewish tradition holds that someone who dies on Rosh Hashanah is a Tzaddik, a person of great righteousness. I’ve seen allusions to that tradition in several of the essays I read this morning. Certainly, RBG was a Tzaddik. We who have benefitted from her work owe her a legacy of continuing the fight. It will be, I fear, a long, bitter and contentious one. Many of us are of the age that we will not be there when the dawn begins once again to break, but we must never, ever go back; we must never, ever give in to the exhaustion of having to fight again and again for things we thought were won. We owe Bader Ginsburg our tenacity and our outrage.
As we transition toward Yom Kippur, perhaps we need to reflect on how our complacency may have contributed to the moment we have reached historically. A majority of Americans are spoiled with riches most of the world can scarcely imagine. It is all too easy to think the fight is almost over, the journey almost complete. Yet a spoiled child is arrogant and unconscious of privilege. A spoiled child lacks the necessary empathy to recognize that there are still Americans who have been denied access to those riches today or who may be denied that access through a Supreme Court decision tomorrow. Exhaustion must not be an excuse for complacency.
Recommit, stay the course. Do what you have the will and strength to do to make this a better world, for the sake of righteousness in memory of The Notorious RBG?