Over 130 members of the college community gathered over Zoom on Sept. 19 to commemorate the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg H’91. One of the most publicly esteemed justices in U.S. history and only the second female justice on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg passed away from complications due to pancreatic cancer on Sept. 18 at the age of 87.
Affectionately nicknamed “the Notorious RBG,” Ginsburg was a seasoned advocate against gender discrimination who later became a progressive icon as political divisions over the Supreme Court spotlighted her position. In 1991, two years prior to her nomination to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg was awarded an honorary degree by Amherst President Peter Pouncey. More recently, she visited Amherst College on Oct. 3, 2019 in an event that was attended by almost 1,600 community members. Ginsburg also spoke at the class of 2020’s virtual graduation celebration, encouraging students to persist in the face of adversity and to “help repair tears in your communities.”
President Biddy Martin began the memorial by reflecting on Ginsburg’s career and her visit to the college, praising her energy and her generosity as “extraordinary.” She then played a short clip from Ginsburg’s visit in which the Amherst College Choral Society performed for her a piece from her favorite opera, The Marriage of Figaro, and introduced the speakers to come.
Henry Stiepleman ’23, Ginsburg’s grand-nephew, spoke first, telling a story of a brief stay he had with Ginsburg two summers ago. He explained how “Aunt Ruth” insisted on taking him and his friend out for dinner: “We took a black town car with two very protective men squished together with Ruth in the back. When we walked into the restaurant with one of her bodyguards holding her arm, everyone inside stood up and clapped.”
Stiepleman also expressed some of his misgivings on speaking. “I went back and forth on [whether to speak today]. Certainly, to me and my family, it's about the loss of my great-aunt, someone we loved,” he said. “But I didn't want to make this about me or purport to know her better than I did. In the end, however, I thought it might be helpful for the school to understand her not only as RBG … but as someone you have to make small talk with, someone who is a kind family member, someone who gets tired.”
“It's a very sad moment. Let's take time to reflect, feel the pain, but when we're ready, we should ask ourselves, ‘How do we move forward?’” Stiepleman concluded.
Chairman of the Board of Trustees Andrew Nussbaum ’85, who was formerly a law clerk for Ginsburg, followed with remarks exploring his personal relationship with Ginsburg as well as her philosophy on life. “As Biddy mentioned, last night was the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the Jewish new year. It's a time when we reflect on [the past year] and pledge to do better in the coming year,” he said. “On hearing the news [that Ginsburg had passed], I thought, ‘How will we ever do better in the coming years without Justice Ginsburg?’”
“She would find that question completely ridiculous. Her life was never just about RBG; she viewed herself as part of a continuum of progress,” he continued. “She believed that others, in time, would follow her and make even more progress than she might be able to make … She was always forward-looking.”
He then noted some of the many accomplishments in Ginsburg’s career as well as the pragmatic, stepwise approach she took to reaching them, such as securing equal pay for men and women in the military in Frontiero v. Richardson, a Supreme Court case she argued and won while working for the American Civil Liberties Union. Nussbaum closed by echoing Ginsburg’s previous calls for optimism about the future.
AAS President Jeremy Thomas ’21 followed Nussbaum, cautioning against viewing Ginsburg’s death as a tragedy and advised the community to take it as a call to action. “Calling Justice Ginsburg's death a tragedy is an obfuscation,” he said. “We would do well to remember her life and death as a sacrifice for us all, as the ultimate expression of her will. In the face of terrible illness, she brought us her indelible candor and unequivocal brilliance: this is sacrifice, not tragedy.”
“We inherit the magnificent tradition of an endless march toward freedom and toward the dignity of all mankind,” he added. “We must protect her gift by ensuring her death's consequences do not overshadow her life's triumphs.”
Professors of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Martha Umphery and Lawrence Douglas rounded out the speakers, both of them praising her legal mind, her willingness to speak out and her penchant for optimism.
Afterwards, an open forum was held where members of the Amherst community were invited to share their thoughts about Ginsburg. The topic of conversation moved between recalling various memories or thoughts about Ginsburg and the political implications of her death, which leaves a hotly-contested vacancy on the Supreme Court just weeks before the upcoming presidential election that, if filled by President Donald Trump, could cement a conservative majority on the court for the foreseeable future.
“[Ginsburg] reminds us that it's our bodies and our lives that are at stake in these major decisions, not only by the Supreme Court, but in every court,” Martin remarked.
Students have also expressed grief over Ginsburg’s death, writing messages on a physical memorial wall in front of Frost Library. “Being able to hear you speak and ask you a question in the Red Room is an experience I will never forget,” one comment read. “We will show up in November and make you proud.”
“Thank you for everything,” another comment said.
Speaking separately to The Student, Anna Kanengiser ’22E lamented the political realities that caused Ginsburg’s death to become an object of extreme political import. “I’m embarrassed that my country relied on one person’s job to maintain important human rights and I am deeply scared for the people, mainly marginalized communities, who will be most hurt by her absence on the court. And more personally, she was an influential figure in my budding interest in law and politics and losing someone I looked up to is never without grief.”