Earlier this week, I wrote a light-hearted take on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s most memorable quotes and how they related to remote school—ruminations on patience, persuasion, fortitude.
My lovely editor diplomatically said, in so many words, “Too soon.” She asked me to write about what RBG meant to me. And the truth is, I’d avoided it. I’d decided to be funny because being serious was admitting an awful truth—that we’re losing role models one by one this year. It feels as though every day there’s new reason to despond: a muddy cascade of bad news, deaths, destruction, wildfires, plague. It feels almost biblical.
I also felt removed from this particular piece of horrible news, or somehow less inclined to opine about it, because I have sons. This isn’t to say that RBG’s legacy shouldn’t matter to them; it should, deeply so. I want them to grow up to treat women with respect, to fight for equality, to champion the underdog, to conduct evolved lives that stand for something. It’s my job to make that happen.
As a mother of boys, though, I am a parent to the most advantaged class of humans on the planet. My sons will grow up to be white males. They likely won’t face wage discrimination. They won’t question whether or not they can get an abortion. They won’t bear the weight of generations of systemic degradation on their shoulders.
I also thought RBG’s death didn’t fully apply to me because I hadn’t personally suffered deprivation of the rights she championed. I’d never fought for an abortion or been unable to apply for a mortgage. It felt performative to make it personal. I could grieve on a broader scale, for what her loss means to the country and for generations to come. But what does her loss mean to me personally, a middle-class white woman?
Until I realized how truly dumb I’d been, thanks to my editor’s prodding, how numb and blind. (This is what editors are for, by the way.) I thought about the things I do every day as a woman that come so naturally, so fluently, that I don’t even contemplate them. I put on lipstick to make myself more attractive before moderating a Zoom panel, because it’s expected. My husband certainly doesn’t dress up for his Zoom calls. I carved out a career with a fluid schedule to be accessible for my children—something my husband would certainly do if I asked, because he’s an incredibly evolved partner, but I am the first line of defense. I am the one to field messages from the school nurse, the IEP coordinator, the teacher, the tutor—because I’m the gatekeeper of my children’s schedules and academic plans. And for so long, I simply took for granted that this is how things were supposed to be. I didn’t realize they were minor inequalities, too; small tears in a fabric that felt scratchy but familiar.
This isn’t to say that my husband isn’t helpful. He is, astoundingly so, in a way that amazes the older generation. He cooks dinner every night. He is a hands-on father. He champions my career at every turn. But the fact that this is worthy of praise—of notice—speaks to decades upon decades of a lopsided domestic calculus. He is congratulated for pulling his weight. Even the word I just reflexively used—“helpful”—confers a sense of duty and inferiority; he is the helper, the one who chips in, the secondary party. But he is not a volunteer at a potluck—he’s an equal partner.
And so RBG’s death reminded me to raise men to fight for equality, too: equality at home. To be expected to serve as fully present members of a family and to strive for that. To take on the role automatically. To seek out partners who will hold them to that standard. I thought about how RBG received a call from her kid’s school and politely asked them to call her husband instead, a man who was known as her biggest cheerleader. “This child has two parents. It’s his father’s turn,” she said.
I want my own sons to remember that it’s always their turn.