On the tail of a new edition to the Supreme Court, many students have reflected on the life of former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. While some Wellesley students were among those to celebrate her memory, some also spoke the more harmful realities of her career.
On Sept. 18, a Friday night when Wellesley students found themselves winding down from the busy week, the news of the death of renowned Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg left many stunned. A career of consistently working for legal gender equality has made her a feminist icon in the eyes of many, and, in a time of heightened political anxiety amid the looming presidential election, the news was particularly staggering for self-identified progressives. Immediately following reports of her passing, social media users responded with an outpouring of praise for Justice Ginsburg.
During the 1970s, as director of the Women’s Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Ginsburg devoted herself to case after case concerning gender discrimination, six of which she argued before the Supreme Court. Her handling of these legal battles permanently altered the course of constitutional interpretation and brought women closer to equal protection under the law. In the next stage of her career as a justice of the Supreme Court, she continued to fight for equality, most visibly in her dissents of the Court’s rulings regarding gender discrimination, voting rights and reproductive rights. She also joined the majority opinion in landmark cases granting rights to the LGBTQ+ community. Justice Ginsburg’s far-reaching influence on the ongoing fight for equality under the law is a reason why many Wellesley students mourn her death.
“What we’re able to do as women in the US would have been very different without her work, or with a man in her place on the Supreme Court,” Michaela Abrams ’23 said.
Hira Khan ’23 echoed this sentiment, noting how looking back on the work of Justice Ginsburg caused her to realize how certain rights of women that seem simple had to be fought for and were achieved relatively recently.
However, as the admirable accomplishments of Justice Ginsburg have become more visible in the wake of her death, some have tried to bring similar attention to her problematic history. Although she has a mixed record in cases involving the rights of Indigenous people in America, Kisha James ’21 noted that Justice Ginsburg’s argument in the case Sherrill v. Oneida upheld the doctrine that colonial powers are entitled to the possession of occupied territory, and also included racist language against Indigenous people. According to James, Justice Ginsburg demonstrated a general lack of respect for tribal sovereignty and Indigenous lives in multiple other cases.
“Justice Ginsburg was against tribal sovereignty, and in Sherrill v. Oneida, she said that the court must prevent ‘the Tribe rekindling the embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold.’ Justice Ginsburg upheld the needs of the ruling class and whiteness above all else,” James said.
Perhaps Justice Ginsburg’s most publicized controversy was her condemnation of football player Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem prior to games to protest racial injustice and police brutality, which she called “dumb and disrespectful.” Amid the renewed glorification of Justice Ginsburg, some students have also pointed out that even her most powerful contributions to legal equality could not have been achieved without the work of Black people and POC.
“Yes, she was a pioneer, but the reason why she was able to do what she did was because of the efforts of women of color, of various minorities … they paved that way for her,” Khan said.
One of the most apt examples of this is Pauli Murray, a lawyer who devoted her career to civil rights and women’s rights. Her feminist logic provided the basis for Justice Ginsburg’s argument in the case Reed v. Reed, in which the Court ruled that giving preference to one gender over another as the administrators of estates was unconstitutional, a decision that provided a launching pad for the changing of hundreds of discriminatory laws.
In pointing out these realities of her career on social media, some students were disappointed by how their points were received by others. James described witnessing on social media many white Wellesley students policing their BIPOC siblings who expressed their anger over the damage inflicted by Justice Ginsburg and the Supreme Court on their communities, saying that there was a better time for these issues to be brought up.
“There is always a tendency to posthumously whitewash the record of neoliberal darlings … and to police when BIPOC can express their anger about some of the things that person did, as well as a tendency to ignore the very real harm that was done to historically oppressed groups of people” said James.
The response of Wellesley’s administration to Justice Ginsburg’s passing was similarly troubling for some students. On Sept. 21, College President Paula Johnson sent out an email of commemoration. Several students noticed that the statement made no mention of Justice Ginsburg’s anti-Indigenous actions.
“Whenever a major American figure dies, it immediately becomes clear who treats BIPOC as an afterthought and who doesn’t,” James said. “It immediately becomes clear who prioritizes whiteness and their own human rights over the human rights of others.”
As many shed light on Justice Ginsburg’s damaging legacy, even those who expressed admiration for her have taken a qualifying stance. Abrams believes that while Justice Ginsburg’s memory should not be defined by the harmful decisions she made, they are a necessary part of her legacy. Khan says that her actions must be considered in the context of her conservative life. In reference to Justice Ginsburg’s argument in Sherill v. Oneida, Khan said, “it epitomizes the notion that she’s part of this generation that has this internalized sense of entitlement over America.”
The question over how Justice Ginsburg should be remembered has caused many people to reflect on the nature of the Supreme Court as an institution and to consider Ginsburg’s actions in this broader context. Abrams contends that Justice Ginsburg did indeed cause harm in her career, but she was following her job as a Supreme Court justice. Ginsburg’s duty, Abrams explains, was interpreting the Constitution, so her actions in that role do not necessarily reflect her personal beliefs.
“I believe that she has ruled in favor of what the Constitution has said, but that is absolutely a reason to take issue with the way our Constitution is written and the way the Supreme Court exists,”Abrams said.
Others argue the Constitution is an inherently oppressive document due to the heinous origins of the United States, and therefore Justice Ginsburg’s actions on behalf of the judicial branch should be held against her.
“RBG actively helped expand and uphold the racist, capitalist and imperialist empire that is America, just like all other Supreme Court [justices] do … I do not think anyone who works for the settler colonial American government should be honored,” Olivia Massie ’22 said.
Another powerful way in which Justice Ginsburg’s death has affected Wellesley students is in what it means for the future of certain human rights. Many students, regardless of who Justice Ginsburg was, are extremely fearful of the trajectory of the Supreme Court in her absence. The issues for which she was a reliable champion — like reproductive freedom and marriage equality — are now threatened. These fears were hardened after Donald Trump’s replacement nominee Amy Coney Barrett was sworn in on Oct. 27. Barrett’s presence adds weight to the conservative wing of the Court. Her past work has sought to curb abortion rights, gun control, and the Affordable Care Act.
“The ultra-conservative backgrounds of most of the current justices means that the lives and freedoms of so many marginalized communities are being put at risk … The notion that the hard work, strife, and sacrifices of those who fought so hard to secure a more equitable world could be undone makes me simultaneously furious, devastated, and disappointed,” Khan said.
James hopes that this anxiety will push people to question the institution that Justice Ginsburg worked for.
“If the only thing preventing your human rights from being taken away is one woman, maybe it’s not a good system of government,” James said. “Perhaps there is a better system of government out there — one not based on slavery, genocide, settler colonialism, imperialism and capitalism.”