Amid the mourning for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the fear for what lies ahead, I came upon this precious, powerful moment.
In 2017, Justice Ginsburg visited the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington to give a talk. She was no ordinary guest. Twenty-one years earlier, she had led a 7-to-1 majority of the Supreme Court to hold VMI’s admissions policy — to admit only men — unconstitutional. Her majority opinion had a particular significance because it was she who had laid much of the groundwork for her own ruling from the other side of the dais, as a lawyer advocating for women’s rights and equal protection in the 1970s.
And then in 2017 she went to visit the institution she had sought to make better by declaring its basic makeup unlawful and unjust. She read to the audience some of the criticism she had received back then. It involved an unaccountable but potent fear of mascara. But the audience, all these years later, was vociferously with her. In the room were a great many women, admitted because of Ginsburg’s life’s work.
One of Ginsburg’s hosts that day in 2017 read aloud a letter sent to her 20 years earlier. It was from a VMI alumnus, a man necessarily, who, shortly after the court’s decision, had written Ginsburg in support of her ruling and offering the gift of a pin that had belonged to his mother. “The one enclosed was my mother’s. She is dead now. We want you to have it. In an abstract way, you will be ‘mother’ of VMI’s first and succeeding women graduates.”
When she visited VMI 20 years after receiving that letter, 21 years after striking down its sexist admissions policy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was wearing that mother’s pin.