It was a joke but not a joke, this sense that Ginsburg must be protected at all costs. And my God did people want to protect her, up until the moment the Supreme Court Justice died on Friday night at the age of 87.
They saw her as a legend, after all. A shield. A bulwark. One of the few things standing between marginalized communities and the forces that would harm them — the forces that would make LGBTQ folks fear losing their jobs again, or send women in search of knitting-needle abortions. A gay man once told me that he had an elaborate fantasy in which he and his friends could swathe Ginsburg in bubble wrap and then carry her, in a careful phalanx formation, up and down the steps of the court each day for work.
He was laughing when he started sharing the fantasy, but by the end, he was crying. He needed to believe in this version of reality, in which there was a way to extend her life indefinitely, in which six or eight gentle gay men could somehow keep the person safe who kept the country safe, in which hope could be suspended above their heads in bubble wrap.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a feminist hero, and that’s the most reductive way to put it. She was an advocate for progress: a kinder world where people were seen as more equal in the eyes of the law and each other. “Women and men, working together, should help make the society a better place than it is now,” as she described it simply, in 2015.
After the 2016 election and the rancor it both introduced and revealed, that earnest notion started to seem almost defiant. Which made Ginsburg into even more of a necessary hero. It wasn’t until her later years that she was given the nickname Notorious R.B.G. (after the larger-than-life ’90s rap legend Notorious B.I.G.), which reportedly delighted her.
In the end, she looked so frail. And this became part of her notoriousness, too: She was frail — but just look at her on the bench, asking attorneys sharp, probing questions about the laws that would affect and shape us all. She was frail, but just look at her workout routine in the Supreme Court gym. Look at those planks and how it seemed she could plank forever.
She was frail, but she was strong, and that was the real message. Look at how people can seem fragile, but still keep going, holding to what is just and good. Look at how countries can seem fragile, but then right themselves, if only citizens keep the faith. Look at how a body so riddled with sickness and cancer can still have so much fight left in it.
Not fragile like a flower, fragile like a bomb, read a slogan that often appeared on sweatshirts or knee socks at craft fairs, and below those words there would be a picture of Ginsburg.
Why didn’t she retire in 2015?
This was another question people asked. It wasn’t a comfortable question, and it wasn’t one her admirers liked asking. They hadn’t really wanted her to retire in 2015, after all. They wanted her to retire never. But since never wasn’t an option, why didn’t she retire well before the 2016 election, when Barack Obama could have named her replacement?
The answer, one presumed, had to do with the hubris of that moment, which was more fragile than it seemed. The world we thought we lived in, the world it turned out we had instead. Ginsburg surely believed her replacement would be named by Hillary Clinton. Ginsburg, a defender of and hero to so many women, surely wanted to retire with the court in the hands of the first female president.
If that was her reason for staying, though, she guessed wrong, as so many of us had. The man who took the White House instead showed no interest in progress, but sought instead to shove the country backward through history. All Ginsburg could do was grit her teeth and hold the plank.
Nearly four years passed, and they couldn’t have been easy. Ginsburg fell and broke her ribs in 2018, and while examining that injury, doctors found that there was cancer on her lungs. In July of this year, doctors found cancerous lesions on her liver, and while in treatment for that, she developed a gallbladder infection. Every time, after every recovery, she vowed to return to the bench.
How could she not? Certainly retirement was not an option. She felt she had more work left to do, and more of herself yet to give. Her supporters, meanwhile, had told her, and themselves, that she simply was not allowed to die. They still needed her protection.
I am thinking of her last moments. I am thinking of her last words, among which were, according to NPR, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
I hope she felt no guilt. I hope she knew that we knew she’d done the best she could.
This grief, this hope, this anger, this love, this bubble-wrapped kindness and this desperate belief that the country could be held on track by this single, frail, powerful woman — this was never a reasonable wish. This was always too much to ask.
One woman could never be a bulwark. But when she died, darned if it didn’t feel like the dams had broken open and all the water flooded out.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more, visit wapo.st/hesse.