There are nine justices on the Supreme Court, but there was only one who inspired T-shirts, tattoos, bobblehead dolls, feature films and generations of devoted fans that included people who would be thought too young to have favorites on the federal bench.

That justice was, of course, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the tireless advocate for equal rights whose remarkable half century battle against sex discrimination took her from arguing cases before the Supreme Court to sitting on the court for 27 years. She died Friday at the age of 87, setting off a tempest of political speculation about who will name her successor. The reaction was so predictable that Ginsburg herself got involved, dictating a message from her deathbed that expressed her “fervent wish” that her seat be left empty until after a president is inaugurated on Jan. 21.

Although the presidential election is only 41 days away, there will be time to debate the political implications of a Republican-controlled Senate confirming a Republican president’s nominee just four years after declaring that no president should be able to fill a Supreme Court vacancy during an election year. Now it’s important that the bickering take a break while the country mourns the loss of a towering historic figure.

Just as the death earlier this year of civil rights leader John Lewis led to a national reassessment of the battle against race-based discrimination – its victories and unfinished work – Ginsburg’s passing should occasion a look back at where women were at the start of her career and where we as a nation need to go to achieve true equality. For millions of Americans, Ginsburg came to embody that journey, and she was an inspiration for the future.

Back in 1959 when she graduated from law school, employment discrimination against women was standard behavior. Even though she graduated first in her class, Ginsburg couldn’t even get a job interview at the biggest law firms because she was a woman and a mother. Her professors recommended her for a clerkship with Justice Felix Frankfurter, a liberal icon, but he refused to consider her because he did not want to work with a woman, he said.

After years in academia, Ginsburg began taking cases for the ACLU designed to get the issue of sex discrimination into the federal courts. In 1971 she won a victory, in Reed. v. Reed, getting the all-male Supreme Court to agree that the Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantee of equal treatment under law protects women as well as men.

She became a federal judge in 1976 and was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1993. In the first stage of her tenure,  she put together majority opinions that furthered the cause of equal rights. More recently she became known for stinging dissents as the court drifted to the right.

It was during these years Ginsburg became a pop-culture celebrity, serving as a living symbol of fierce determination, steady effort and commitment to a cause. Her legion of admirers, especially the middle school girls with RGB posters on their bedroom walls, deserve a chance to mark her passing without being drowned out by a lot of jockeying over her seat.


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