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Thursday, Sep 28, 2023

Middlebury mourns Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and reflects on her legacy

Before she was Notorious, before she sat on the highest court in the land, before she argued in front of that very court against gender-based discrimination, Ruth Bader was a dedicated college student who snuck books into the bathroom to study. At a time when women were expected to graduate with little more than an “MRS” degree, Ginsburg was an unflinching academic whose accomplishments paved the way for millions to follow. 

Justice Ginsburg was the first woman on the Harvard Law Review, graduated first in her class at Columbia Law School and became the second-ever woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court when appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. By the end of her nearly thirty-year tenure, she had asserted herself a liberal champion for her scathing dissents and had become a household name. Ginsburg’s path to the Supreme Court was fraught with obstacles and discrimination, but for each door she opened, she made sure to hold it wide for those who followed.

Justice Ginsburg died on the night of Sept. 18, the first night of Rosh Hashanah. One of two “High Holy Days” in the Jewish calendar, the day marks the start of the Jewish New Year. Justice Ginsburg was the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and it is said that those who die on Rosh Hashanah are of great righteousness. As word of her death traveled around Middlebury, the college community mourned and reflected on the effects of her legacy in their own lives. 

President Laurie Patton was home preparing Shabbat dinner when she heard of the Justice’s death. Ginsburg was a role model of Patton’s. She explained that the holiday of Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of a new world and, in her view, Ginsburg helped construct a new world for future generations to live in.

“I believe this identity [as a Jewish woman] was one of the things that gave her life-long grit,” Patton told The Campus. “I hope every young person sees in RBG’s words and her life story that discouragement is not a blow, but an opportunity, an opening for another path forward.”

Alex Dobin ’22 was also celebrating Rosh Hashanah in a Zoom service with her friends and family when she received a barrage of messages about Justice Ginsburg’s death. She told The Campus that she watched as others in the call began to hear the news as well. 

“There was this moment where I knew that it was circulating among people whom I was sharing this moment with,” said Dobin. “What a day to find out this information about this incredible, strong Jewish woman who has talked about her connection to Jewish social justice. [...] There’s this idea that RBG is an icon for feminists everywhere and people interested in gender equality politics, but also within the Jewish community she’s totally an icon.” 

In addition to Justice Ginsburg’s significance within the Jewish community, Patton looked to her as a symbol of intellectual resilience and courage.

“She never gave up — not when she was told she was employable only as a typist, not when she was denied teaching jobs, not when she lost cases,” Patton said. “She focused on the long-term issues, not the politics of the moment.”

Professor of Political Science and constitutional scholar Murray Dry has spent years studying decisions in which Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion, and those in which she dissented. 

“I was, like many Americans, surprised and saddened by the news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death,” Dry said. “She was more influential than any other person in bringing about a judicial recognition of the equal rights of women under the law.”

Dry identifies Ginsburg's “rockstar status” as a testament to her legal accomplishments and past decade of leadership on the liberal wing of the Supreme Court. He also notes that both Ginsburg and her colleague and close friend Sandra Day O’Connor “embodied in their careers the challenges that women had to overcome to be accepted in the legal profession on a par with men.”

Lucie Rochat ’22 remembers receiving a book of Ginsburg’s quotes as a birthday gift from her mother. For Rochat, this book serves as a reminder that much of Ginsburg’s impact came in small moments when she stood up and used her words to fight for equality, inspiring millions. “If I were to think of her legacy, it would be through those little quotes and little moments that were in that book,” Rochat said. 

For Rochat, Ginsburg’s legacy will always be highlighted by her ardent efforts to protect the rights of women and minorities.

President Patton hopes that Ginsburg’s story will continue to serve as inspiration for young people, a lived lesson in the power of reason and determination. 

“I will always be inspired by the way that RBG used reason relentlessly. She used reason to change the way we reason so that more people could live lives free of prejudice,” Patton wrote.