RBG, a Stoic Role Model
A few years ago, I staked out my spot as the first person in line in front of a university chapel. After a long time standing there in the dark, the doors opened and everyone rushed inside the cavernous stone building. I found myself in one of the front pews. Still, when the speaker appeared on the stage, it wasn’t easy to see that tiny figure. But as she began, her words were even more powerful than I expected—and despite her stature, she spoke with the dignity and intelligence of the giant that she was. It was worth the wait to hear Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talk about her work and the principles that guided her life.
The news this past week of Ginsburg’s death at age 87 launched a collective mourning among those who saw this Supreme Court Justice as not just one of the foremost jurists of our age, but also as a role model. She fought massive battles to equalize the sexes before the law in her early career. And despite illness, in her later years she worked tirelessly to interpret American law, moving it towards recognizing more civil rights and equality while on the Court.
In fact, I believe that Ginsburg should be viewed a Stoic role model, someone to pattern ourselves after while following a modern Stoic life philosophy.
I’ve thought about this idea for years. For me, Ginsburg not only served as a model of perseverance and grit in the face of bias, but also of an ethical and brave life. That rang true when I saw her speak that day at the chapel. Already in her 80s, she’d faced many scary things (on a personal level with her and her family’s illnesses, and on a professional level with exclusion and marginalization and judicial defeats). And yet she was brave, carrying on to achieve remarkable firsts.
Ginsburg’s approach was in sync with my own Stoic life philosophy, where the central pillars are to examine all our impressions and judge them by their wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline (the four Stoic virtues). To me, "the notorious RBG" was a powerful example of a life lived with meaning and purpose—accomplished with a Stoic-like sense of working towards these virtues in any way we can.
Ginsburg sought to enshrine equal justice into the interpretation of the law, stemming from her own experiences of inequality. She grew up keenly aware of the differences in opportunities and treatment in society of men and women. Later, she had the tremendous good fortune of a marriage that was an equal partnership in the 1950s. Her husband Martin encouraged her to pursue a law degree, an extreme rarity at the time—Ginsburg was initially one of just nine women in her law school class. She did earn her degree, while giving birth to and raising children (again, with support and help of her family), and caring for her husband when he became ill. And though she was a mother of two in an era where most mothers did not work outside the home, she and her husband shared responsibility for their children, allowing her to continue her own career.
When Ginsburg struggled to find traditional legal jobs at New York law firms who turned her down because she was a woman and a mother, she changed direction. Ginsburg persevered to become a law professor and legal advocate who argued before the Supreme Court in favor of eliminating sex-based discrimination.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about Ginsburg was how she created change in a hidebound system. She found pathways into a legal world that was set against her as a woman working in the field, and set against other women (and some men) in laws and regulations upheld by long tradition and precedent.
Ginsburg was deft at appealing to others to see a lack of fairness. One of the remarkable things about legal cases is how they represent in concrete and human form our lofty abstractions about what’s right and wrong. But judges—even Supreme Court Justices—are humans, prone to biases and misleading “impressions,” in the Stoic sense. Those can cloud their reason and judgment. To shine a spotlight on the Golden Rule to these jurists, Ginsburg chose to argue cases before the Supreme Court representing male defendants who resembled, in a way, the justices themselves. This brought home the idea of “how would you feel if this happened to you?” and, from there, the essential “do unto others as you would have done to you.”
Here’s how a Ginsburg obituary described her approach in a key case:
“Knowing that she had to persuade male, establishment-oriented judges, she often picked male plaintiffs, and she liked Social Security cases because they illustrated how discrimination against women can harm men. For example, in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, she represented a man whose wife, the principal breadwinner, died in childbirth. The husband sought survivor's benefits to care for his child, but under the then-existing Social Security law, only widows, not widowers, were entitled to such benefits. ‘This absolute exclusion, based on gender per se, operates to the disadvantage of female workers, their surviving spouses, and their children,’ Ginsburg told the justices at oral argument. The Supreme Court would ultimately agree, as it did in five of the six cases she argued.”
About that case, she later said in an interview: “The aim was to break down the stereotypical view of men’s roles and women’s roles.” Ginsburg believed that both men and women should have equal opportunities to become full citizens and participants in society. This is an idea that I strongly support in my own life, and especially for my two daughters: I would like them to have every chance to become productive, brave adults working to make our world better.
Ginsburg worked towards equality of women and men before the law little by little. It’s hard to believe that there was, very recently, a time when women couldn’t sign up for a credit card, a car loan, or a mortgage on their own; when women couldn’t serve on juries, deciding cases of their peers; and when laws barred women from holding certain jobs. As Ginsburg and others argued cases to equalize the rights of both genders, the Supreme Court’s rulings began to shift the tide, knocking down these barriers.
And then when she was named a justice on the Supreme Court herself, in 1993, she worked to advocate for equality before the law from the bench. Exercising well-reasoned judgment, and insisting on correct procedure, were hallmarks of her work on the Court.
And even when the Court’s majority went in another direction and she found herself outnumbered on a decision, she still made a difference. This is a very Stoic attitude: even if we can’t change something directly, we can still seek the virtuous path and act in ways that influence others. So RBG couldn’t always win outright, but she could share strongly-worded dissenting opinions based on her vision of justice and wisdom, an act of courage—three Stoic virtues all in one action.
In fact, Ginsburg wrote lengthy dissents that made a major impact on the law—not through the court’s decision of course, but by prompting Congress to create new legislation. The most well-known example was her dissent on employment discrimination, which led to Congress passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
Her dedication to long hours and hard work were well known. RBG’s ability to get by on just 2 or 4 hours of sleep (by her own telling) helped. Ginsburg’s perseverance in the face of illness stands out, too. She was still determined to do her job despite being sick, scheduling treatments so she could keep working.
Both the way she lived and her approach to influencing the legal world seem quite Stoic to me. She worked to change the things she could change. And by pushing on the definition of what she could influence, Ginsburg managed to make a difference for others despite the huge barriers raised before her. For all this, she is a remarkable Stoic role model.
RBG’s life shows how change happens in unexpected ways—which is why Stoics and those inspired by Stoic ideas should always seek out opportunities to provide virtue-oriented leadership, when possible.
In a recent interview, Ginsburg recalled a conversation she had with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, now retired. As the first two women on the Supreme Court, both acknowledged that they had been denied a traditional corporate legal career due to their gender. Yet it was because of that fact that both ended up as Supreme Court justices rather than as retired law firm partners. Ultimately, from their seats on the court they were able to make a much larger impact on our country than they would from the offices of a “white shoe” law firm.
It’s our good fortune now that Ginsburg kept on pursuing her work for equality before the law, and I hope that my daughters will benefit from this even more than I have. As Stoics, we have gained a role model in RBG that we can continue to turn to when we need to remember to persevere, to keep chipping away at what we can change, and to stay true to the virtues and values we believe in, even when it’s hard… and even when we find ourselves as lonely voices, a minority opinion. We can exercise well-reasoned judgment and, whenever possible and in often unanticipated ways, make a difference in our world.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.