I had a relaxing but relatively boring weekend. It provided rest, exercise, sunshine, family time…and very little writing material.
On Sunday night I was clearing out the clutter in the “promotions” section of my Gmail. I’m not so good at unchecking boxes when I order things online. As a result, I inadvertently agree to statements like these: Yes, please sign me up to receive no less than 50 emails per hour from us informing you of our amazing discount offers, unnecessary products, and pleas for contributions.
In the midst of those 40,000 emails, though, one caught my eye. Why? It was a note from the 92nd St Y, and the memo line said, “Remembering RBG.” I clicked on it. If I’m being honest…and I am…I have to admit that I may have done that as much as a way to avoid writing as out of curiosity or reverence for one of my heroes. What I found, though, was my third lengthy YouTube video of the evening… and hope.
RBG had spoken at the 92nd St Y in September of 2019. One year…and a lifetime ago. I remembered having tried to get tickets. Hah! No such luck. But now here was the full interview for me to watch. I had not realized that the Y recorded and published these appearances. I needed to watch. It was 57 minutes long. It would probably preclude any writing. I clicked play. In my rationalizing mind I thought, “Maybe there will be parts I can play in class.” There were. I also thought, “This may be healing.” Friday night had been such a dismal night. At 7:41 we got Sarah’s text, a simple, bleak, “RBG.” Maybe this could counter that bleak.
It helped. Listening to the justice recount the struggles in her career with such optimism and determination gave me a bit of optimism myself. The world has changed during her lifetime. In many respects it was because of her. When she started at Harvard Law School there were 9 women in a class of 500. Now it’s 50% women. When she graduated from Columbia Law School (after being on the Law Review for both Harvard and Columbia), she couldn’t get a job. Really. Top of her class at the most prestigious law schools. “Well,” she said, “I had three strikes against me: first, I was Jewish, second, I was a woman, but worst of all, I was a mother. No one wanted to hire a mother.”
When she started teaching law at Rutgers, her students wanted a class in women’s rights. At the same time she started hearing about cases that were being brought to the ACLU involving women. She mentioned that teachers were some of the most prominent cases. Women teachers were being put on “maternity leave” when they began to “show” that they were pregnant. “Leave,” literally meant, “Please leave.” Schools thought it would be upsetting for students to see their teachers in such a state. That was in the 60s and 70s. That was in my lifetime.
In her lifetime, our country went from having zero women judges on the higher courts (district, appeals, or supreme) to having three women Supreme Court justices at once. Progress, to be sure, thought certainly not equality.
When the interviewer asked her if there was anything that she would change, had Founding Mothers been a thing at the constitutional convention, she said, “I would add an equal rights amendment.” She noted that no constitution written after 1950 has failed to include language that makes explicit that all people, regardless of gender, are of equal stature in the eyes of the law. It made me remember my mother, now 90, marching for the ERA in the 1970s. Somehow, that seemed attainable then.
Finally, RBG spoke of her reverence and passion for the constitution. I think her interviewer was baiting her to say something negative about the man in the White House when he asked, “Do you see any threats to the constitution during these times?” Ever judicious in her replies, she smiled, paused, allowed the audience to fill in what she might have wanted to say, and then said, “The great justice, Learned Hand said, ‘Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court, can save it.’” She said she had hope in the hearts of good people, and left it at that.
Maybe in the passing of the Notorious RBG, we will all be reminded of her wisdom and courage, and we will work to make her most fervent wishes reality.