Within minutes of the Supreme Court’s announcement Friday night that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed away at the age of 87 , tributes in her honor poured across social media, in text messages between family and friends, and onto the steps of the Supreme Court itself.
It’s hard to overstate Ginsburg’s legal, political and cultural legacy. The second-ever female Supreme Court Justice, she entered law school in 1956, a time when women accounted for less than 3% of the legal profession in the U.S. She would spend her life strategically dismantling this status quo; as her former ACLU colleagues once noted, she was “by no means a bomb thrower,” but “the things she achieved were bombshells.”
Ginsburg’s earliest cases shrewdly focused on the gender inequities in estate and tax law that denied both women and men from achieving what is rightfully theirs, like in 1975’s Weinberger v. Wisenfeld where Ginsburg represented a man whose wife had died in childbirth and had been denied Social Security benefits because the law at the time only permitted widows—not widowers—to collect. (The court ruled in her favor.)
In 1971’s Reed v. Reed, the first brief she would write for the Supreme Court, Ginsburg argued on behalf of a female plaintiff who had been denied by law from serving as the executor to her dead son’s estate (executorship had, instead, gone to her ex-husband).
“Laws which disable women from full participation in the political, business and economic arenas are often characterized as ‘protective’ and beneficial,” Ginsburg wrote. “The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage.
The case marked the first time the court would strike down a law on the basis of gender discrimination. It also serves as an important model for acknowledging the women who came before us: Ginsburg listed as her coauthors feminist Dorothy Kenyon and queer Black attorney Pauli Murray, because she had drawn upon their argument that gender discrimination violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
“Women generations before said the same things my generation was saying, but they did so at a time when no one, or precious few, were prepared to listen,” Ginsburg would later say. She was an advocate for shine theory before it had a name.
Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, but she wouldn’t become a cultural icon until 20 years later, when her blistering dissents captured the feelings of the public consciousness—like when, in 2013, she argued that getting rid of a crucial piece of the Voting Rights Act “when it has worked and is continuing to work … is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” These dissents sparked a thousand memes, SNL skits and even Halloween costumes (this reporter is speaking from personal experience on that last item).
Ginsburg believed in giving credit to the women on whose shoulders we stand. And now, we stand on hers. “Every woman has to wonder,” doctor and activist Esther Choo wrote Friday night, “where would I be right now, if not for the influence of RBG?”
It’s a question that many women, across business and politics and entertainment and more, are reflecting on this weekend. Here’s what some are saying about what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg meant to them:
Gates went on to add: “She was a brilliant jurist, an inimitable Supreme Court justice, a force for equality and integrity—and she was one of my heroes. There will never be another RBG, but we are a much better, fairer country for all that she gave us.”
Steinem finished her statement with a clear call to action: “The more we learn about her words and deeds, the more she will remain a force in our lives and the world around us. She left us a clear and precious legacy. It’s up to us to keep her spirit alive.”