Morgan Jerkins is the author of “This Will Be My Undoing” and a visiting professor in the Columbia MFA program in nonfiction.
In the first scene of the documentary “ RBG,” Gloria Steinem calls Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “a superhero.” The label could not be more appropriate — or more stifling.
In recent years, Ginsburg, 85, has acquired a cultlike following.You can buy baby onesies and stud earrings of the jabot she wears when she delivers dissents; her workout routine has become a source of fitspiration; and, most recently, Felicity Jones played a young Ginsburg in the movie “On the Basis of Sex.” But, at the same time, her fragility has become clearer. Since Ginsburg’s appointment to the Supreme Court, she has survived both colorectal and pancreatic cancers. In November, she took time off after a fall. And this month , Ginsburg missed her first oral argument in 25 years while recovering from surgery for lung cancer. The result has been an unusually intense cultural preoccupation with Ginsburg’s mortality. Ginsburg deserves our esteem. But we can’t ask an octogenarian to take sole responsibility for preserving women’s rights.
Ginsburg cemented her legacy long before Donald Trump’s presidency led to her adoption as a symbol of resistance. She studied and practiced law in a time when women were predominantly confined to domestic spaces and not courtrooms. Her steadfast work in the 1970s helped turn the Constitution into a powerful tool in the fight for gender equality. She’s also made it very clear that she’s not going anywhere.
On the left, Ginsburg’s superhero status intensified after Trump’s election and his appointments of Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. States such as Ohio have passed laws that not only restrict abortion for their residents but also set up court battles that could chip away at, or even overturn, Roe v. Wade. In this environment, those of us who admire Ginsburg need her, both to stand against attempts to ban abortion and to give us someone on the court we feel we can trust.
For many, the nightmare scenario is that Ginsburg will pass away while Trump is in office. Her health is breaking news. Her trainer calls her a “cyborg.” Irin Carmon, co-author of the biography “Notorious RBG,” has assured the public that Ginsburg is a resilient figure. Politico’s Roger Simon asked his Twitter followers if they would donate a day of their lives to keep Ginsburg on the job.
This ongoing panic reflects Ginsburg’s stature — but it also reveals the limits of our own thinking. The pressure on Ginsburg to stay physically and mentally fit for the maintenance of our democracy illustrates our desperation in this new political landscape: It’s easier to focus on keeping one woman alive than to tackle our broader national dysfunction and division. We need to prepare ourselves for the 2020 election and elevate new people at all levels of politics, especially those willing to fight for more liberal judicial nominees. And we need to expand the infrastructure to develop, elevate and support those nominees who will match conservative institutions such as the Federalist Society.
At the same time, let’s continue to channel our strength toward the other women on the court who are tirelessly working as well. The obsession with Ginsburg’s health obscures the contributions of her colleagues, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. The emphasis on how well Ginsburg is doing at her age stagnates the conversation about her work and legacy, placing death at the center of our concern for her.
Mother Jones’s Stephanie Mencimer touched upon the darker side of Ginsburg fandom, arguing that Ginsburg made an irrevocable mistake in not stepping down while President Barack Obama was still in office and that fans who argued that the push for her retirement was sexist are partially to blame for it. The result of her decision to stay on the bench is that our discussion has shifted from the substance of her work to a macabre waiting game that does not soothe our concerns or show compassion for Ginsburg as a human being facing her mortality and some very difficult professional decisions.
If Ginsburg were to die, then Trump would have to find her replacement, and that is a terrifying thought. Yet, one woman cannot embody the entirety of our democratic ideals. This is too much for one person to bear, no matter how much they exercise, and no matter how much they have personally accomplished. The best tribute we can give Ginsburg isn’t to say that she’s irreplaceable. It’s for all of us to use the rights she won for women to take up her fight for justice.