A friend texted 17-year-old Leyla Fern King the news. She didn’t want the high school senior to find out while mindlessly scrolling through social media. She thought she should hear it first from someone who cares.
“Hi love, I have some bad news,” she texted King. “RBG died. I don’t know if you heard, but I found out half an hour ago, and I know you were as invested in her career as I was.”
King first started looking up to Ruth Bader Ginsburg two summers ago, when an extracurricular leadership program she was involved with got to participate in a Q&A with the Supreme Court justice. King remembers Ginsburg as being diminutive but commanding of the room, staying until the audience’s last question was answered and peppering her stories with witty quips. The teen, a member of her school’s student court, began to connect Ginsburg’s experiences to her own. King had spent her first year on student court as the youngest and only girl, and she was often timid about voicing her thoughts.
“If I had been more aware of her at the time, I think it would have given me more confidence,” King said over the phone from her home in St. Louis. “She inspired me to speak more freely with my opinion.”
Ginsburg loomed large in American culture during the final years of her life, perhaps no larger than in the minds of young women in K-12 schools and beyond. These women, more than half a century Ginsburg’s junior and born into a world far kinder to women, say the justice’s experiences fighting gender discrimination remains relevant today.
The justice died last Friday at the age of 87, after serving as the second woman ever to be confirmed on the Supreme Court. These young women, who grew up reading children’s books about her and dressing up as her — right down to the collar — have spent the past few days reflecting on her legacy.
“I think that Sept. 18 we should have Ruth Bader Ginsburg Day, just like Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents Day and other people who have their own day,” said 12-year-old Michele Threefoot, who went viral several years ago after dressing up as Ginsburg for her school’s Superhero Day and even received a letter of support from the justice.
Ava Farquhar dressed up as Ginsburg for her high school senior photo ID. She first learned about Ginsburg while listening to “More Perfect,” a podcast about the Supreme Court. The 19-year-old has since gone on to study engineering at Michigan Technical University, a school that is comprised of 70% men. She learned about Ginsburg’s death on the radio while riding in the car with a friend.
Farquhar said she thinks of Ginsburg every time she is the only girl in the room, a frequent occurrence at her STEM-focused school.
“I’ve become more radical in believing she was a personal hero because she was one of the only women in her law class,” Farquhar said. “She fought for me to be here so I could fight to make it more inclusive for other girls on campus.”
Farquhar is now a leader in three women’s organizations on campus, with the aim of making sure “no woman feels like she doesn’t belong at the table.”
“I draw a direct line between my activism and her work,” she said of Ginsburg.
King is now the chief justice on her student court, but it took about three years before she felt comfortable and confident in voicing her opinions in the setting — a confidence that Ginsburg always seemed to have, she said.
“I look at her as a role model in that sense, in a lot of senses,” King said.
In the wake of Ginsburg’s death, both King and Farquhar said they are scared about what will happen to the composition of the Supreme Court, about having one less person they admire in power. But the justice will help live on in their future decisions.
“She influenced American history in such a positive and impactful way, and that’s something I want to do in my life,” King said.
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