WASHINGTON — In the wake of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a pillar of the women’s rights movement, on Friday night the United States Supreme Court building was transformed into a memorial.
By the third night, the signs and the flowers had begun to circle the block, and the chalk messages were everywhere underfoot. A man blew a shofar, the ram’s horn that is the hallmark of the Jewish New Year. A father and his young daughter stopped to say goodbye on their way back from soccer practice, her cleats clicking on the pavement. There were prayers, candles, offerings of lace collars, and women sobbing in each other’s arms. There were signs calling for revolution and signs calling Mitch McConnell a bitch.
For many of the women who came to the foot of the court’s white marble steps, Ginsburg’s death stirred anxiety and hopelessness in an already dark and fearful year. But they also said that the memorial felt as much like a place of inspiration and action as one of mourning.
De Herman had not heard until Friday night, when Ginsburg died, of the tradition in her faith that Jews who die on the new year are tzaddik — people of great righteousness. As she stood at the memorial Sunday, the thought of it made tears swim in her eyes.
Ginsburg “was clearly one of those,” Herman said. “I can’t quantify the gifts that she gave of herself on behalf of humanity.”
For a while outside the memorial, Herman stood weeping and holding her partner, wrapped in a long rainbow coat and a yellow mask. Earlier that day, Herman said, she’d spoken to some of her “grief-struck” women friends about Ginsburg. Some were afraid. All of them were worried.
“Also, though, this could be a great catalyst for the kind of action that we all need to take if we’re all going to make a difference,” Herman said. “I’m an environmentalist, and a lot of the time I spend on climate activism, and I feel like...if we’re going to get our shit together, this is an existential crisis we’re in.”
She added, “I think that it’s the voices of women, and the empowerment of women, that’s going to drive healing work around this.”
Cathy Stanley and Angela Mauney were here just a few weeks ago, in the shadow of the Capitol, to mourn the death of another of their icons, Rep. John Lewis. This year, Stanley said, has just been too much.
“It feels like they were kindred spirits,” Mauney said of Lewis and Ginsburg. “Their journey ended in the same year.”
At Ginsburg’s memorial, Stanley stood before a sign painted with a quote of the justice’s: “I ask no favor for my sex; all I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
“That translates for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons,” Stanley said.
As Black women, as fiancés, Stanley and Mauney felt they owed a lot in their lives to Ginsburg’s battles for equality.
“I mean, we wouldn’t be able to get married,” Mauney said. She turned to Stanley, held out a hand, and told her, “Show your ring.”
“We wanted to come down here and pay her some respect and homage, and let her know that the fight isn’t going to stop with her passing,” said Stanley. “We hope she’s fighting still when she reaches heaven.”
Rebecca Durango stood stock-still and silent in front of the court, her hands gripping her bicycle, tears in her eyes.
For the past few days, she said, since she heard the news of Ginsburg’s death, she had felt hopeless.
“I felt really empty,” she said. “Just because I felt like, knowing she was alive was a comforting feeling. With that gone, it felt like a rug was pulled out from underneath me, like a safety net wasn’t there. I felt pretty defeated.”
Durango was in Washington, DC, to study politics as a graduate student, and Ginsburg’s legacy moved her.
“For some reason I felt very, very connected to her,” Durango said. “Learning about the work she did, it felt like she did it for me, not even knowing who I am or who anyone else is. But she did it for us.”
Being at the Supreme Court building on Sunday among other mourners and the vast array of tokens they had left behind, had helped Durango, she said. “It makes me feel a little less hopeless. A little hopeful.”
“I’ve been trying to look at it as a sign that we need to be doing more, and that we need to honor her and do everything she’s done,” she said. “It’s hard to feel this way, to feel so sad, and so disheartened, and at the same time have to keep pushing. A lot of us are running on empty, but we owe it to her.”
Sarah Morehouse is a student at Tufts University but was visiting DC for an intelligence briefing when she learned of Ginsburg’s death. On Saturday evening, Morehouse, 25, headed to the Supreme Court building with a sign she’d made for a 2017 rally in New York City and had traveled from Boston to DC with. It read: “Nevertheless She Persisted.” But fright, more than fight, is what she conveyed during a short interview.
“I'm scared as a woman,” Morehouse said. “I'm scared as a queer woman. And I'm scared for my brothers and sisters, who are like me, my brothers and sisters of color, and every minority in this country.”
For Karen Toles, a student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, it’s the hypocrisy of Republicans in the Senate that drove her to the vigil.
She, and the friend who joined her, Mahasin El Amin, have both served in local government in Prince George’s County in Maryland; their biggest concern upon hearing of Ginsburg’s death was what would become of the Voting Rights Act.
“We just have to keep fighting. We have to storm the Capitol if they decide to bring a vote,” Toles said. “Fair is fair. You didn't let President Barack Obama do it, you should not let this guy… I can't even call him president,” she said, referring to Trump.
Tiffany Thompson and four of her neighbors, who’ve been weathering the pandemic together in the same DC apartment building, had their own mini vigil inside the larger one outside the Supreme Court building. They placed red tealight candles on top of a maintenance hole cover and for an hour and a half remembered Ginsburg and tried to come up with a plan for what to do next.
“First and foremost for me is LGBTQ rights, and second for me is my ability to police my own body. But, you know, I mean, it's all of the above,” Thompson, 34, said. “It's terrifying. The whole situation is very scary.”
Correction: Sarah Morehouse's last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.