Cyanotype print by Craig Coleman
Cyanotype print by Craig Coleman

Ruth Bader Ginsburg inspired women for decades. For these Mercer students, she represented the progress of a generation

October 6, 2020

Sophomore Emma Gilliam was at a birthday dinner with a group of sorority sisters Sept. 18 when one of them picked up her phone, scrolled through Twitter and suddenly turned to Gilliam: “R.B.G. is gone.”

The fact that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died didn’t truly register with Gilliam until later that night when she was on the phone with her mother. Talking through the news with her, Gilliam said she sobbed.

“It’s just so hard, because you don’t want to think that someone that you’ve idolized is gone,” she said. “Especially when they’ve been so impactful.”

Justice Ginsburg was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court and championed gender equality throughout her legal career. Prior to her appointment to the Court in 1993, she argued landmark cases like Reed v. Reed, the 1971 case that set the precedent for striking down laws that discriminated “on the basis of sex.”

She’s affected every single person … No matter what race, your gender, background, she just cared about everybody — and she fought for everybody.”

— Emma Gilliam

She continued fighting for women’s rights after her appointment: she wrote the majority opinion in 1996’s United States v. Virginia which required the Virginia Military Institute to open its doors to women and dissented on issues like employment discrimination in Ledbetter v. Goodyear. In the 2000s, she became a pop culture icon known among liberals as “The Dissenter” or “The Notorious R.B.G.” with her likeness plastered on everything from bumper stickers to T-shirts.

For Gilliam, Ginsburg’s legacy runs far deeper than merchandise.

“No one knows, like, the cases that she’s litigated, the important cases that she’s dissented and written opinions on,” she said. “But she’s affected every single person … No matter what race, your gender, background, she just cared about everybody — and she fought for everybody.”

Gilliam’s reverence for Ginsburg dates back to her freshman year of high school. Concerned that many of the people who supported her didn’t know about her impact beyond her iconic image, she presented an in-depth project about Ginsburg’s life and legacy at a state history competition in her home state of Pennsylvania.

Because she was so vocal about her respect for Ginsburg, friends and family flooded her phone with text messages when the news broke that the justice had died.

“After she passed away, I had a lot of family and friends texting me, ‘did you hear the news?’ like she was my family member that had passed away or my close friend,” Gilliam said. “I was sad because I wish that she could have spent her last couple of years just not thinking about hearings and cases and just being able to relax. But my mom basically told me that it’s what she loves to do. You know, it’s what she dedicated her whole life to … and that gives me comfort that she died doing something she loved.”

Gilliam said that she hopes to honor Ginsburg through her career. She majors in law and public policy, serves as a justice on the Honor Council and plans to attend law school. She said she wants to practice family law and represent victims of child abuse and domestic violence. But she doesn’t want to rule out the possibility of becoming a judge — or serving on the high court herself.

“I would love to sit right in the middle seat of the Supreme Court,” Gilliam said. “That is my dream.”

Grappling with the oversimplification of a complex individual

Savannah Curro, a sophomore organ performance major from Boston, Massachusetts, also cried when she heard the news of Justice Ginsburg’s death. But her relationship with the justice — and with members of the political left who idolize her — is less cut-and-dry. 

I think R.B.G. cannot be boxed in, and that’s another thing to really admire about her.”

— Savannah Curro

“Something I have been struggling with actually, just sort of reflecting on her legacy, is that there’s been a lot of focus on what she meant for reproductive rights, and for abortion rights,” she said. “That sort of obsession, I think, on the left personally makes me feel very uncomfortable because it’s sort of a deflection away from what I view as the bigger issues.”

Curro describes herself as a progressive Christian whose stance on abortion is “very middle of the way.” She said that many of the people who idolize Ginsburg don’t focus on some of the rights she secured for women that Curro considers more foundational, choosing instead to highlight her choice to uphold abortion rights. 

Some of those more basic liberties, she said, include the cascade of rights women won after Reed v. Reed, such as the right to obtain a credit card in their own name, the right to sit on a jury and the right to keep their jobs if they become pregnant.

Ginsburg won favor with many people like Curro who appreciate her dedication to women’s rights but hold some conservative views, too. Ginsburg famously befriended the late Justice Antonin Scalia, her ideological opposite who wrote the dissenting opinion to U.S. v. Virginia and opposed same-sex marriage; she maintained progressive values but maintained her religious faith; she was fiercely dedicated to the preservation of the U.S. Constitution; and she often voted with conservatives on the Court.

To Curro, Ginsburg’s ability to walk the line between feminism and religion while respecting the Constitution resonates. She said that religious women like her are often boxed in by societal expectations of how they politically align. And as a self-identified feminist, she hears the same rhetoric from other progressives about what a feminist should believe.

“When you’re living in these lines between the ideas society has for you of what religion should be, what feminism should be, you know, what conservatism is, what liberalism is, and kind of going beyond that … it can be difficult living between those different definitions,” she said. “I think R.B.G. cannot be boxed in, and that’s another thing to really admire about her.”


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