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Family | The Atlantic
Family | The Atlantic
RBG Inspired Me to Be a Better Lawyer and Father
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an intimidating boss. Though small in stature and quiet in demeanor, she was a legendary lawyer and jurist who was fiercely devoted to her work. And she never lost sight of the principles—and the people—that made that work worth doing.I served as a law clerk for Justice Ginsburg during the Supreme Court’s 2013 term. It was the privilege of a lifetime, yet something I will never feel that I quite deserved. In the days since she died, I’ve felt my mind drifting back to that time, the glimpses it gave me into her life, and how it shaped my own.[Read: What Ruth Bader Ginsburg taught me about being a stay-at-home dad]The justice was 50 years my senior. Even into her ninth decade, she demanded the world of herself, and expected no less from us. When the boss is willing to work from dusk until dawn, there are no excuses. You do whatever it takes to get the job done, and to not let her down.I’ll never forget when I felt my pocket buzz on Thanksgiving night at my sister’s house. I pulled out my phone and read the screen with alarm: “RBG cell.” I bolted to the bathroom and spent the next half hour being grilled by the justice with my heart racing, desperately longing for my notes, scrambling to recall the technical details of a case to be argued the following week. She was an elegant woman of iron will. And she used that inner strength to move mountains.But no matter how seriously she took the work, she was always joyful in her play. Dull afternoons were livened with heaping bowls of frozen yogurt from the Court cafeteria, consumed beside a crackling fire in her chambers. She once invited us to watch 42, the movie about Jackie Robinson’s life, and nearly glowed as she told us of watching Robinson play baseball while growing up in Brooklyn. Birthdays at work were celebrated with cupcakes and prosecco, with the clerks probing for more tales from her past. Especially for those of us who clerked for the justice in her advanced years, these stories took on an almost mystical quality, a connection to a strange and ancient world where rights we take for granted today still had to be fought for.Before I was even born, she was a trailblazing advocate for gender equality who had begun to weave her vision into the Constitution: that you can’t be fired for becoming pregnant. That women as well as men are entitled to serve on juries. That a widowed father has the same right to government benefits to care for a child as a widowed mother. That the law can’t assume that a woman’s place is in the home, and that a man’s is not.Outside the courtroom, the justice never lost sight of the personal relationships that give life meaning. One Saturday during my clerkship, she took us to a performance of Scalia/Ginsburg, an opera centered on her surprising friendship with Antonin Scalia, her dueling conservative counterpart on the Court. (I surely absorbed more opera that year than I will in the rest of my years combined.) My co-clerks and I sat behind the odd couple, watching her and Nino whisper and guffaw as their operatic selves engaged in spirited debate through song. One evening, Justice Ginsburg invited a renowned Maltese tenor to perform at the Court. From my office, near the justices’ ornate dining room, I labored over a memo late into the night as the wine flowed next door and the tenor’s voice, sometimes accompanied by Nino’s, echoed through the marble hallways.The author’s daughter with her Lego RBG figure (Courtesy of Ryan Park)Another late night in her office, we worked to wrap up edits to a draft opinion set for release the following day. When the opinion finally rang pitch-perfect, she put her pencil down, beckoned me to her computer, and nudged the mouse in my direction. Like any doting grandmother, she wanted help viewing the photos from a recent trip to France that her granddaughter had posted online.She also cared deeply for her clerks, and our children as well. The surest way to melt the justice’s heart was to bring a grandclerk in for a visit. My daughter was barely three months old when I started the job. They first met on Halloween, with Caitlyn dressed as a pig, crawling around the chambers floor. They hit it off from the start, and Caitlyn grew up before her adoring eyes. I will always remember watching the justice kneel on the floor to play with a Lego figurine of RBG that Caitlyn had plucked from her office mantle—and later wrapping Caitlyn’s hand around the toy as a parting gift.For as seriously as she took the work, the justice knew that family always came first. Immediately following my clerkship, I spent a period at home with my daughter, trying to make up for all those late nights at the Court. The justice was thrilled when she learned that I was planning to be a stay-at-home dad for a while. She believed fervently that her life’s work of furthering equality in the law could never be realized without equality at home as well.[Read: RBG’s fingerprints are all over your everyday life]When I contemplated writing publicly about my experiences, which I ended up doing for The Atlantic, she was my biggest supporter. The justice knew the power of example—that if you live your own life according to your principles, others will follow. Her example has given permission to millions of women and men—including myself—to break free from artificial barriers that hold them back from fully pursuing all their identities, as mothers and fathers, breadwinners and caretakers. She wanted me to join her in carrying that mission forward.I will be eternally grateful that my daughters—Caitlyn and her little sister, Cora— had the chance to know the justice and be inspired by her life and career. Yet her inspiration extends much further than those whom fate blessed with her personal presence in our lives. During my time at the Court, the Notorious RBG as a pop-culture phenomenon began to reach its crescendo. My co-clerks and I would race to be the first to show her the latest viral video or meme featuring her. She was tickled by these diversions, but seemed silently aware of the deeply serious undercurrent that lay behind her newfound fame.Maybe in a truly equal world, we wouldn’t need heroes like Justice Ginsburg. But we still do. To so many little girls and boys, she has served, and will forever continue to serve, as a shining example of the pragmatic idealism that has shaped this nation since its founding. A force that propels us to reach beyond ourselves to envision a better future, and to work tirelessly to make that vision a reality.For my part, she will always be standing over my shoulder, encouraging me to be a better father and an equal partner. And she will always be the exacting yet supportive boss, inspiring me to work harder until the job is done right.The last time I spoke with the justice in person was in the courtroom last fall, during my first oral argument at the Supreme Court. As I waited for my turn to speak, I was more nervous than I had ever been, uncertain whether I had what it took to meet the moment. But when I looked up at the bench, I saw the justice gazing down at me with a warm, reassuring smile that told me everything was going to be all right.In recent days, I’ve received many heartfelt messages of condolence. For so many of us who loved her dearly, the feeling of personal loss is incalculable. But at the same time, it heartens me to know that the loss is one we all bear together. Justice Ginsburg’s legacy belongs to all of us. It buoys me to see people inspired to carry forward her vision of a more equal and just society. She would have expected no less. And if she were still here, she’d reassure us with a smile and a hug, and tell us to get to work.
theatlantic.com
Ruth Bader Ginsburg Transformed Americans’ Personal Lives
In her 87 and a half years, Ruth Bader Ginsburg left a significant mark on law, on feminism, and, late in her life, on pop culture. She also left a significant mark on everyday life in America, helping broaden the sorts of families people are able to make and the sorts of jobs they’re able to take. Her legacy is, in a way, the lives that countless Americans are able to live today.Ginsburg achieved the status of celebrity as a Supreme Court justice, and during her tenure she cast votes in support of Americans’ ability to get an abortion and to marry someone of the same sex. But her legal legacy can be traced back to her work as a litigator with the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s, when she and others won a string of groundbreaking sex-discrimination cases challenging laws that governed quotidian parts of American life and now seem medieval.Those laws implied a narrow view of gender roles within families. “At the time RBG was arguing, laws that made explicit gender distinctions were common. Widows get this; widowers don’t. Wives get this; husbands don’t,” Kathryn Stanchi, a law professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, wrote to me in an email.Ginsburg successfully advocated in court for, among others, a father who was denied Social Security survivors benefits after the death of his wife, because the law dictated that widows were eligible but widowers were not; a woman in the Air Force whose husband was denied a spousal allowance that military wives were automatically entitled to; and an unmarried man who was denied a tax deduction for the expense of hiring a caregiver for his elderly mother, since that deduction was reserved for women, divorced men, and men whose wife was incapacitated or deceased. The laws in question didn’t account for people in those circumstances; now, because of Ginsburg, they do.[Read: What Ruth Bader Ginsburg taught me about being a stay-at-home dad]Her litigation wasn’t about a series of isolated inequities, though: Ginsburg’s core argument was that “equal protection” under the law, as promised by the Fourteenth Amendment, covered discrimination based on sex. One unconventional but shrewd strategy she used was to focus on how such discrimination harmed men. “Rather than asking the Court to examine inequalities facing women, where nine men were very unlikely to be sympathetic, she asked them to look at inequalities affecting men, because she thought it was more likely that they would recognize those as problematic,” Michele Dauber, a law professor at Stanford University, told me.This attention to the law’s treatment of men was not merely strategic, but also a component of Ginsburg’s larger legal project of demolishing the norms that steered women toward caregiving and men toward work. “The breadwinner-homemaker model is built into the structure of American society and American law at a very deep level,” says Joan C. Williams, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. One of Ginsburg’s crucial contributions to American feminism, Williams told me, was the insight “that you had to talk about these as a set of matched stereotypes, and attack them both at once.”Ginsburg’s approach helped alter the way women were able to make their way in the world. Before the mid-’70s, they were often denied access to their own credit cards, “on the presumption that their husband controlled the family’s financial assets,” Patricia Seith, a researcher specializing in congressional legal history, told me. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 banned such discrimination, which had extended to mortgages as well. “Ginsburg paved the way for legislation such as ECOA,” Seith said.Signs and flowers left in Ginsburg’s honor in front of the Supreme Court (Alex Wong / Getty)The legal precedents that Ginsburg helped establish in the ’70s in a sense shaped the way households are set up today. For instance, female breadwinners are now much more common than they were several decades ago. “She’s not responsible for every single woman individually deciding to go get a job, but she did cultivate the conditions by which, if you chose to do so, you have full access to the benefits that your employment provided,” says Melissa Murray, an NYU law professor.The accumulation of new protections won by Ginsburg and others have allowed many Americans to envision versions of family life beyond the breadwinner-homemaker binary. Her legacy “isn’t just Social Security or tax exemptions, though those are huge in their own way,” said Stanchi, the UNLV professor. “It is the ability to perform your gender as you wish, whether that is women working outside the home, … men staying home and caring for children, men loving other men, women loving other women.”Of course, the United States has hardly reached anything resembling gender equality. Men are still more than twice as likely as women to be the higher earner in straight couples, and women spend, on average, over an hour more than men on caregiving and housework each day. The American family currently “looks a lot less different than we tried to make it,” said Williams, referring to the work that she and others have done. “But it looks a lot more different than traditionalists would have it.”In that sense, Ginsburg’s legacy is expansive. When I asked Dauber, the Stanford professor, about the specific, concrete features of daily life that are different now because of Ginsburg, she said, “It’s the right to hold specific jobs. It’s the right to be a lawyer, the right to be a doctor. It’s the right to attend elite colleges, or any college. It’s the right to participate in sports. It’s everything that came after the idea that it was inappropriate to make distinctions based on sex alone … It’s not one thing that’s different—it’s everything that’s different.”
theatlantic.com