September 19, 2020
Dear Berkeley Journalism Community,
In these deeply disturbing times, we need to hold on to inspiration when it comes. I write to you today because I believe there’s so much inspiration that we, as journalists and human beings, can draw from the life of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, even as we mourn her death.
As I’ve paused to grieve this huge loss, I’ve found meaning in the poem When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou, particularly this last verse:
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
I’ve thought back on her enormous impact as a lawyer for the ACLU in the 1970s in advancing women’s rights by challenging the legal framework that supported unequal gender roles. Her creative approach, occasionally taking up cases in which men were being pigeon-holed into stereotypical male roles and deprived of equal rights, reminds us of the need to think out of the box when fighting for social justice—and in life.
When we’re not in positions of power and are struggling to influence the institutions where we work, we can draw strength from how she used the power of dissent. As the U.S. Supreme Court grew more conservative and issued decisions that she deeply disagreed with, she took the lead in writing powerful dissenting opinions that ensured her voice was still heard, her career becoming what the New Yorker’s Jill Lepore calls, “a monument to the power of dissent.”
So many of our students have told me they struggle to imagine how to balance the needs of a family in a profession as demanding as journalism. Justice Ginsburg was a pioneer in this balancing effort. She wrote about the advice her father-in-law gave her in 1954 when she was wondering whether to go forward with plans to enter law school as she prepared to give birth to a baby. “Ruth, if you don’t want to start law school, you have a good reason to resist the undertaking. No one will think the less of you if you make that choice. But if you really want to study law, you will stop worrying and find a way to manage child and school.”
We can all learn also from her ability to look beyond political ideology to make friends with the “other,” such as the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. If we as a country are to ever heal the deepening divisions, being able to see and reach the humanity in the other is essential. Justice Ginsburg was pathbreaking in being able to do that.
Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legendary reporter who covers legal affairs, talks about how she and Justice Ginsburg handled the potential conflict-of-interest in their professional lives of being such close personal friends. We’ve been pondering the question of professional ethics at Berkeley Journalism, and I think we can learn a lot from how these two women traversed this sensitive territory. Totenberg says that when Justice Ginsburg was facing a difficult surgery, she didn’t tell Totenberg. “I just didn’t want you to be trapped between your friendship for me and your obligations as a journalist,” Justice Ginsburg explained when she called Totenberg from her hospital bed after the surgery.
I hadn’t known about Justice Ginsburg’s incredible kindness until I read Totenberg’s piece today. When Totenberg’s late husband was ill, and after he died, Justice Ginsburg and her husband would, “scoop me up, taking me with them for a night out, or dinner at their apartment with someone interesting, and once for a memorable and very small family birthday party for RBG at her cousin Beth’s house. I always felt those evenings as a kind of embrace,” Totenberg writes. During these dark times, as we see friends around us struggle, let us remember to “embrace” one another, that the smallest acts of kindness are lifelines.
As our country is about to get embroiled in the most bitter fight over appointing Justice Ginsburg’s replacement, let us pause not only to mourn her, but also to draw every ounce of inspiration we can from her incredible contribution to the fight for justice and equality– and from the courage, openness, civility and kindness that defined how she lived her life.
Professor of Journalism