Speak your mind. Even if your voice shakes. — Maggie Kuhn
Though this quote is often attributed to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it more likely was said by another great woman: Maggie Kuhn, who was forced to retire from her career at age 65 and went on to found an organization called the Gray Panthers to work on issues concerning the elderly, including age discrimination. Though not directly attributable to Justice Ginsburg, it certainly seems like something she would have said, because, especially in her later years, her voice often did shake — and yet she kept speaking her mind.
My own voice occasionally shakes, too, when I am trying to make a point on a topic about which I am passionate. I also love this quote because I had the pleasure to see Justice Ginsburg live up to Kuhn’s advice.
I was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015. After the admission ceremony, I had the privilege to be in the courtroom for that day’s oral arguments. Overall, the entire day was awe-inspiring; it was a bucket list day with many memories made. But the most vivid, and my fondest, memory was sitting within 20 feet of Justice Ginsburg and watching her work. I cannot remember the cases being argued, who the lawyers were or what questions were asked by the justices. What I do remember was Justice Ginsburg’s voice and the fierceness — although her voice was quiet and a bit shaky, she demonstrated that fierceness with every statement she made and every question she posed.
As the arguing attorney moved through her prepared remarks, a quiet voice, barely audible over the din of the arguing attorney’s voice and the shuffling of papers, interrupted and posed a question. Though we could barely hear it at first, soon the voice of Justice Ginsburg became the only sound filling the courtroom as every single person sitting in that courtroom leaned in to hear better. She spoke quietly, slowly and deliberately, her voice slightly shaking at times. Neither the slowness, the softness nor the shaking detracted from what she had to say, from the well-reasoned, poignant brilliance of her question or from the legal argument she was making via the question that she posed.
That day, I sat in that storied courtroom completely soaking in the presence of my legal hero. I was inspired by the pure respect that Justice Ginsburg commanded with only the slightest utterance of her soft, and somewhat shaky, voice.
Of course, Justice Ginsburg was not always so soft spoken or so respected. Over the course of her life and her career, she earned that respect. She earned the ability to command a room and to make everyone lean in to hear her better. She earned the admiration of her colleagues and fellow jurists and of women and lawyers like me. Given the challenges she faced, the obstacles she overcame, the superhuman feats she performed — as a young wife, with a toddler at home, she did not just her own law school coursework, but helped her husband Marty, who was undergoing cancer treatment, keep up with his own — no wonder she’s sometimes depicted as Wonder Woman. Add to that, all the battles she fought, the arguments she made, and won, as well as the ceilings she shattered, the paths she paved, the friendships she forged (Justice Antonin Scalia, a man to whom she was ideologically opposed, called her his “best buddy”) — these are the things that led to the respect that I witnessed in 2015.
As a woman, a lawyer, a wife and a mom, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was — and frankly still is — my hero. She was real, relatable, tenacious, brilliant, thoughtful, funny, inspiring and strong (I mean, I’m 40 and can barely hold a plank; RBG did a series of 15- and 30-second planks during her workouts). And even when her voice would shake, she spoke her mind.
Right now, the country and those who, like me, revered and admired Justice Ginsburg, need to mourn her death. I am saddened at her passing. But the grief I am feeling right now is more directly related to the immediate politicization of her death and the battle over her replacement, which began before her body was cold. This woman, and those she inspired, deserve better than politics as usual. May we all take a breath, take a step back and take time to revel in the life she lived, to celebrate all that she accomplished, to hear the stories of those she inspired and to acknowledge the grief we feel over the loss of an absolutely incredible human. Rest in power, Justice Ginsburg, and thank you for all that you did to make all that I do and will continue to do, as a woman, lawyer, wife and mom, possible.
Denise Elliott of Lancaster is an attorney with McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC, where she practices in the labor and employment group. She provides representation and counsel to clients in employment discrimination litigation and regarding, among other issues, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act.