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Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s memorial marks a historic moment for women

Errin Haines, The 19th
Published 4:00 a.m. CT Sept. 30, 2020

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This story was published in partnership with The 19th, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom reporting on gender, politics and policy.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a historic trailblazer, marked history one more time: On Friday, the late Supreme Court justice became the first woman and Jewish person to lie in state in the United States Capitol, an honor reserved for members of Congress, U.S. presidents or leaders of the military. She is only the second justice to be honored in this way; the other was William Taft, who was chief justice as well as president. 

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Ginsburg’s legacy of inspiring generations of women — many represented among the mourners who stood before her flag-draped casket — was on full display in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, where centuries of the patriarchy of American politics, in the forms of marble figures of men, looked on during her memorial.

During the ceremony, the women of the 116th Congress were the first allowed to pay their respects to Ginsburg. They also lined the steps of the Capitol to honor her as her casket passed by.

There was Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking female elected official in U.S. history and the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House. The California Democrat called the moment a “high honor,” and said in a statement: “Justice Ginsburg’s tireless advocacy in the fight for gender equality leaves a historic and enduring legacy of progress for women, for families and for our entire country. Her life and leadership cemented the truth that all men and women are created equal.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Rep. Barbara Lee of California both bowed at the foot of Ginsburg’s casket. Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio raised her fist as she passed by. The three Black women are part of the most diverse Congress in history, and members of the largest Congressional Black Caucus since the organization’s founding in 1971.

Also among the grieving: the trailblazing women and sitting U.S. senators who, together with Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson, set a record for women candidates running for president in a single election cycle. Honoring Ginsburg on Friday were Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Kamala Harris of California — currently the highest-ranking Black female elected official in American politics, whose latest barrier breaking moment in politics came last month when she was named the first Black woman to join a major party presidential ticket.

Alongside these gains in political gains for women is another reality: Women still make up only 23.7 percent of lawmakers in Congress, despite being the majority of the U.S. population and electorate. 

In a nod to Ginsburg’s strength, her trainer, Army veteran Bryant Johnson dropped before her casket and did a trio of push-ups in her honor. Ginsburg’s fitness routine as an octogenarian became legend in a recent documentary about her life.

Ginsburg’s lifelong love of opera — the diminutive justice lamented that she wished she’d had the talent to be an opera singer — was also reflected in the ceremony, as soprano Denyce Graves performed in tribute. 

Over more than half a century, it was that strength that helped bring about much of the change — both incremental and seismic — to make America more fair and free for all of its citizens. Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt spoke to how Ginsburg spent a lifetime chipping away at inequality, a leader to the end.

“All the days of her life, she pursued justice … Pursuing justice took resilience, persistence, a commitment to never stop,” Holtzblatt told the audience. “As a lawyer, she won equality for women and men, not in one swift victory, but brick by brick, case by case, through meticulous, careful lawyering, she changed the course of American law.

“She was our prophet, our north star, our strength for so very long … Now she must be permitted to rest after toiling so long for every single one of us.”

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