Even amid scourges of seemingly biblical proportions — a pandemic, wildfires and floodwaters — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death jolted us with an unbearable blow. Though we knew she was battling a recurrence of cancer at age 87, she had vigorously beaten the disease four other times, so we thought she was indomitable, or at least, tenacious enough to hold back the inevitable until late January.
Now we mourn the loss of a founding mother of the second wave feminist movement — the architect of women’s rights in the 1970s who upended the way the law regards gender which changed our culture. We are saddened by the silenced voice that argued and dissented to defend constitutional and civil rights for women, minorities, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, workers, voters and all who have been overlooked or relegated to the sidelines of society.
We all stand on the shoulders of this diminutive giant. Those of us who came of age shortly before the landmark laws that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, still remember what it was like to be shut out from college admissions and job opportunities, denied credit cards or loans because we were women.
It was Ginsburg, the first Jewish woman to sit on the Supreme Court, who helped caste aside the yoke of paternalism that relegated us to second class citizens — not just under the law, but also in education and in the workplace. It was the same subordinate standing we had in families where sons typically were favored more than daughters, in marriages where wives “belonged” to their husbands and in religion.
Certainly, growing up in an observant family in the 1950s and ’60s, I was always aware of my diminished standing in Judaism where women could not read from the Torah or pray next to men. We were considered impure until we dipped in the mikvah.
It was a lesser distinction underscored by the fourth blessing recited by men at the start of the Shacharit services: “Blessed are You, Adonoy our God, King of the Universe, Who did not make me a woman.”
By the 1970s, Ginsburg’s advocacy as co-founder of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and her arguments before the Supreme Court helped pave the way for reproductive rights, Title IX, equal credit opportunity and other hard-won victories that opened the doors for women by ending discrimination on the basis of sex. We even saw the ordination of the first woman rabbi.
Those of us from the 1960s thought we had won the revolution. Now it’s time for a new generation of women to start its own. The National Council of Jewish Women has launched Ruth’s Revolution, a campaign to protect Justice Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat.
When a person dies, it is customary in Judaism to say, “May her memory be a blessing.” With the passing of RBG, Jewish feminists around the world are calling for action with the words, “May her memory be a revolution.” JN
Civia Tamarkin is the president of the National Council of Jewish Women Arizona.