There’s a teammate of mine I that pops into my thoughts from time to time. She was a surveillance technician attached to one of the troops my team deployed to Iraq. At the time, women were still limited from serving in ground combat roles. But this was Iraq and her troop was attached to the Special Operations Task Force in Al Anbar. So anytime she went anywhere, there was potential for combat, woman or man. And so she wore the gear.
The Command Master Chief, a legendary prick in a community with some famous pricks, never missed an opportunity to turn the knife a bit when he saw her. He didn’t like that she was “going in harm’s way”. Or trying to “play operator”. And he made it clear, often in front of her.
All she wanted to do was to do her job and serve her country. We were in a war. And she was a damn good technician. And we needed her. But that wasn’t good enough for some people. And it never would be.
There are many different Iraq deployment stories. But the one thing that they almost all have in common from those days, is that they were exhausting. I remember the last troop I turned over. I could feel the stress pouring out of me as I left my office for the last time. All I wanted to do was turn my brain off and sleep for a year. I’ve never been as spent before or since. But I never had to deal with anyone telling me I didn’t belong. Or that I was “playing” anything. And when I think of my old teammate, I can’t get away from one thought. Just how exhausting it must have been for her.
The energy required to create new paths in a society can’t be overstated. And the ones sealed off by something as broad and consistent as gender inequality are orders of magnitude more difficult. The standard they have to hold to build those paths are so damningly unfair.
Yesterday Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 87. She was the highest rated woman in her undergraduate class at Cornell in 1954. She was one of nine women of a class of 500 in her Harvard Law School. She had to transfer to Colombia to follow her husband to New York City for his job. She was rejected for Supreme Court clerkship because of her gender. She was a law professor a decade before Title IX, and was openly and unapologetically paid less than her male counterparts. She founded a women’s law journal and was the first woman on two law reviews. She published the first gender discrimination text book. Trying to capture it all in an essay would be absurd to the point of disrespect. But it’s worth just starting to give you an idea. This was all 50 years ago. And it hasn’t stopped.
She was a progressive Supreme Court Justice during a conservative period of the Supreme Court. And she made her points by writing dissent. The world could move in against her…but she wouldn’t go with it. And she never stopped.
Four years ago as America woke up to the political surprise of generations, she woke up to the realization that her last fight was going to kill her. She’d never be able to rest. And that’s just the way it was going to be. As it always had for her. A fight…to the end
There will be volumes written on Justice Ginsburg’s life. And there will be better volumes written on the impact she’s had for women and America. The two paragaphs from Wikipedia I reference above don’t begin to scratch the surface of what she means. The lesson I’m trying to learn from her takes me all the way back to that technician in Al Anbar, and the mountain of bullshit she had to put up with, just to tread water in someone else’s world. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been blazing a trail for nearly 70 years in a way I’ll never be able to grasp.
The world is hard enough to live in, without trying to change it. And in that trying is a display of resilience I’ve failed so many times in my own life to show. And at the scale that someone like Justice Ginsburg dared to move the world, nearly all of us shrink away from. Few have the stamina. Fewer have the resilience. And all but a few we can recognize by name have had the courage.
The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice. But it doesn’t bend on its own. It bends under the force of the implacable strength of the RBG’s of history.
She was flesh and blood. She came into the world like every one of us. The same heart that beat in her chest beats in all of ours. And the same cancer that could kill you and I took her out of it. But in between was something so alien to most of us as to be unrecognizable to the rhythms of our lives; resilience and strength on a scale we will never fully grasp.
The political world is going to tip over with a level of democratic insanity we’ve not seen in some time over the next six weeks. The hole left in the moral universe will have to be addressed, lest that arc start to straighten out a bit. But Justice Ginsburg’s fight is over now. May she rest, finally, in peace.
We have the watch.