“Ruth Is Strong & Tough When Things Get Bad:” 4 Generations On RBG's Legacy
Nine-year-old Maeve Scheler of York, Pennsylvania, received the book Who Is Ruth Bader Ginsburg? from her mom Amanda last Christmas, a gift that wasn’t particularly remarkable in any way. But when schools shut down this March due to the pandemic, Amanda and Maeve confronted a deluge of worksheets; among them, a form asking Maeve to sum up a book she’d read. She went back to that Christmas gift on her shelf, poured over the chapters, and penned a short essay about the Justice. Amanda, happy to see some meaningful content in the thrown-together online learning, tucked the essay away. Six months later, as she and her daughter processed the news of the icon’s death, Amanda was inspired to share Maeve’s words about Justice Ginsburg to social media in tribute, and the incredible response (over 32,000 “likes” and a thousand comments — and counting) is a testament to the place RBG holds in our collective hearts.
Of course, Ginsburg’s work and legacy had been inspiring women for years before Maeve even arrived on the scene. Over two decades ago, attorney Gerri Sperling sat two tables away from Justice Ginsburg at a Washington, D.C. restaurant. The justice was enjoying dinner with her beloved husband, and Sperling did not want to interrupt a quiet, intimate moment in the life of a busy, powerful woman. But now, she wishes she had taken a moment to let Justice Ginsburg know exactly how much she meant to her. Sperling, at 63, is part of the first generation of Baby Boomer women who felt they could embark on the path blazed by Ginsburg and pursue law. “My mother was so smart, and thought about becoming a lawyer, but didn’t pursue it because she felt it wasn’t an option for girls,” says Sperling. Her mother became a teacher instead, and Sperling was encouraged to do the same. When she told her father she wanted to be an attorney, at the age of 11, he replied simply, “Girls aren’t lawyers.”
I identified with her as a lawyer, a working mother, a Jewish woman who adhered to the Jewish principle of tikkun olam, repair the world, and as someone who became a lawyer to help people.
Sperling chased that dream anyway, and for many years has considered Ginsberg her imaginary mentor. “I identified with her as a lawyer, a working mother, a Jewish woman who adhered to the Jewish principle of tikkun olam, repair the world, and as someone who became a lawyer to help people,” Sperling says, adding, of RBG’s death, “I feel like I lost a friend.” It’s poignant to Sperling that the Justice passed on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a holiday of hope and renewal.
Anana Rice, a Pittsburgh-based lawyer who runs the business and tax service Cali & Co, has been obsessed with Ginsburg since the icon first entered her radar. “I was one of those weird teenagers who loved politics,” she says. The first president she could vote for, Bill Clinton, appointed RBG to the Supreme Court in 1993, while Rice was sophomore at American University. As a Gen-X woman pursuing law, though women like Ginsberg and Sperling had begun to pave the path ahead, she says that the road was still rocky. As a Black woman, Rice says she was subject to doubters and detractors. When she began law school in 1997, she really dug into constitutional law and public policy, learning that “[Ginsberg’s] votes saved many freedoms in this country. Abortion, women's rights, LGBTQ rights, and worker's rights. Even if conservatives won a particular vote, her dissenting opinions were brilliant and clearly expressed her view and why.”
RBG’s commitment to justice and equity in the very misogynistic field of law inspired Rice. “There are lots of men who don't even think women should be lawyers,” she says. “I'm sure she ran up against a ton of disdain from men who feel threatened by intelligent, powerful women.”
I love how she and her husband really shared in the responsibility of child rearing. He used to remind her to come home from work.
For each generation, those before have made the path a little smoother, a little easier to navigate. Millennials such as Casey Welsh of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, came out of law school with a history of four female Supreme Court Justices: Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonya Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Yet, Welsh practices family law today in a firm where she is the only female lawyer. During the pandemic, she has seen how much more the closure of schools and lack of childcare has affected working mothers than their male counterparts across her field. In Welsh’s own case, it’s not due to anything directly her firm is doing; she blames the structure of society and this burden falling to women. She says she has always related to Ginsburg as a working mother: “I love how she and her husband really shared in the responsibility of child rearing. He used to remind her to come home from work.”
Welsh has set a personal goal to be as passionate as her idol RBG, who would literally hang on until her dying breath for something she believed in. Though she loves many of the opinions, dissents, and well-known quotes of RBG, it’s a lesser known quote from a 2014 New York Times Magazine interview that really sticks with Welsh. When asked by the magazine to share what she found most surprising about moving into her ‘80s, Ginsberg replied, “There's a sense that time is precious and you should enjoy and thrive in what you're doing to the hilt.”
As the next generation of young women rushes towards adulthood, we can only hope that Ginsburg’s legacy leaves our daughters with the world at their feet — or at least more of the barriers removed. Amanda reports that Maeve is humbled reading all of the responses she received to her posts across Instagram, two Facebook groups, Reddit, and Twitter.
“So great to hear the truth out of the mouth and heart of a young girl (and reader),” wrote one person on Facebook. “I look forward to seeing your daughter being sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice in the future,” shared another.
“This moment will stay with her,” Amanda says.
At this point, Maeve plans to be “a waitress, and author, and an illustrator” when she grows up. Her mom knows she can achieve all these things, and more, in no small part because of Ginsberg’s work and her legacy. Maeve’s future “will be different than the world we grew up in, that is for sure,” Amanda says. And for her part, Maeve has taken to heart what she learned from her role model: “Ruth is strong and tough when things get bad.”