WASHINGTON — The enormous crowds that spontaneously gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court in the hours after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday are a tribute to what she represented to many Americans.
People are mourning her death because they admired her spirit, her fearlessness and her determination to fight for equal justice under the law, in part because they knew she understood what many of them were facing in their lives.
She became a cultural icon in her 80s because while small in physical stature, Ginsburg was a warrior, an intellectual giant whose passion for women’s rights was forged in the sexism she herself experienced in law school and as a young lawyer. Her fearlessness was as legendary as her determination and her work ethic.
Most recently, diagnosed with yet another cancer, she developed an infection that required hospitalization, was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, had the procedure and was on the telephone participating in oral arguments the next day.
I knew her personally, and my husband and I were honored when she officiated at our wedding in 1997. I was fortunate to also get to know her extraordinary husband, Martin Ginsburg, a very successful lawyer and professor who supported her in every way, glorying in her successes while cooking and managing the homefront.
It was an extraordinary marriage. They shared a mutual love of classical music, especially opera. She was theatrical, even appearing onstage in full costume as a supernumerary at the Washington National Opera in a 2016 performance at the Kennedy Center.
Opera, in fact, helped her develop a close bond with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Intellectually, they were polar opposites. But they had become fast friends while serving together on the U.S. Court of Appeals, where she developed an appreciation for his sense of humor.
The two couples celebrated New Year’s Eve together. It was an unlikely friendship, but a tribute to the humanity of each that they got along so well across the partisan divide.
Ginsburg was unfazed by the celebrity and acclaim she enjoyed into her 80s. The “Notorious RBG” became the subject of a documentary that featured her working out with a trainer. Another feature film portrayed her fighting to be taken seriously as a woman in law school and as a young lawyer, leading up to her triumphant first argument in front of the Supreme Court, where she won a foundational case against sex discrimination.
Her courage in successfully battling cancer over the years perhaps made us think nothing could conquer this incredible woman. Her spirit endured until the end, when she dictated her final fervent wish to her granddaughter: that she not be replaced until the next president takes office.
In truth, she is irreplaceable. Her legacy will live forever.