This March 15th, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have been 88. Over the last year of her life, she and I collaborated on a book for young readers, RBG’s Real Wonder Women: Brave and Brilliant Jewish Women to Inspire Everyone, which comes out in September. Although it is about 33 amazing women, the late justice, who died after completing her part of the book, is the true star of the book.
In the months since her death, I have come to believe that that the United States needs a national RBG Day. Yes, an actual federal holiday with all the trimmings, not just a monument as recently has been suggested by a group of women lawmakers in the House and Senate. Monuments are meaningful, but you have to go to a monument. Holidays come to you.
Here are some of the reasons why we need an official day to remember Justice Ginsburg. Let me start with the most obvious. Her birthday is March 15th, which just happens to be in the middle of women’s history month and a week after International Women’s Day, making it the perfect time for Americans to remember her accomplishments. I say remember, but I am pretty sure if you ask most of us what her accomplishments were, we won’t be able to articulate them beyond fighting for women’s rights, being the second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and, of course, becoming a cultural icon/”rock star” in her later years.
Really, March 15 is a perfect teaching moment to come to better understand what Ruth Bader Ginsburg accomplished in the 1970s before she became a judge. She blazed a legal path for women to finally become first class citizens . Until she brought and won her cases before the Supreme Court, women could vote—thanks to the hard-won 1920 Nineteenth Amendment—but remained second-class citizens. By basing women’s rights on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was originally meant to cover newly freed slaves, she made U.S. law fairer—not just for women but for men and families as well. Her achievements are especially important since an Equal Rights Amendment has never been ratified.
Justice Ginsburg wasn’t the only person responsible for this, but she invented this approach (although she still felt an equal rights amendment was necessary), crafted the arguments and argued the cases. To me, this makes her a national hero along the lines of President Abraham Lincoln and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and she deserves a federal holiday. She should, like these two men, be forever celebrated as a person who changed the course of American history for the better. There is no federal holiday named for a woman; why not name the first for her? What she accomplished was not easy, and her bravery and persistence were remarkable.
In her later years, Justice Ginsburg became a role model to the nation—at a time when we were in desperate need of role models. We still are, all of us, but our kids in particular. And if we establish a holiday to remember her, her life has a greater chance of being a positive influence on future generations. And we should celebrate her not only for her achievements but for the way she lived her life. She overcame deeply ingrained societal gender discrimination with a combination of grace and forthrightness; had a great marriage and partnership with her husband, Marty Ginsburg; she was a caring mother, grandmother and aunt. She was a voracious reader and learner, and took great pleasure in music, particularly opera, fashion and the arts. Perhaps most telling, although she experienced a string of serious health issues, she did not let illness—or age—define her. She worked out and lifted weights with her personal trainer, and continually took on new challenges.
Her methods to bring about change are also worth celebrating. She always kept her eye on the long game. She’s famous for her statement that “sometimes you have to be a little bit deaf,” wise counsel she learned from her mother-in-law. Justice Ginsburg frequently chose not to fight every little battle or even every slur. When you are in the business of being a pathmaker, this is a lesson worth weighing in the balance, at least, against the current mode of sifting every utterance, even by an ally, for signs of inadequate purity.
A federal holiday named for Justice Ginsburg would also remind us annually of the struggle for women’s rights in this country and, even more important, that women do not yet have blanket coverage for equality in the U.S. Constitution. I know history has a way of melting away, but I have been astounded in interviews I have conducted with young people by the extent to which most of them are unaware of both these facts—how recently they achieved full rights and how much there still is to do. An RBG Day could serve as an occasion for schools, conferences, articles and public discussions of how visionaries like her actually bring about change.
Justice Ginsburg often said that there was no reason not to have nine women on the Supreme Court. “People ask me,” she once told me, “’When will there be enough?’ and I say, ‘When there are nine.’ There have been nine men forever and nobody is doing anything about that.” I think she was quite serious. So I suggest that we mark RBG Day until the time when all the seats on the high court are filled by women, a super-majority of women in the House and Senate, and a female president, all at the same time. Once we achieve all these milestones, that then we can either keep RBG Day to remember the long path to gender equality, or we can abolish it. At that point, her work will be done.