Like millions of Americans, I was heartbroken when news broke on Friday that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s cancer had returned, this time to her liver. When it was reported she will be undergoing chemotherapy while continuing to operate at “full steam,” I felt furious.
I’m mad that she is in a position where she likely feels she can’t step back because the stakes are too high. I’m mad that an 87-year-old woman is expected to do her job while she is very sick — something millions of women are taught to do. I’m mad that instead of outrage, our collective response is once again, a sigh of relief: “Yas queen! RBG will save us all!”
But she shouldn’t have to. Some might argue that Ginsburg is doing the job she signed up for but a lot of America doesn’t see Ginsburg as simply a woman doing her job — we see her as a superhero. We see her likeness on “Notorious RBG” T-shirts, key chains and prayer candles. (My own RBG candle sits on my living room credenza, to be totally transparent.) Babies dress up as her for Halloween. We’ve memeified her — the ultimate tribute of love bestowed by the Internet, turning her into a pop culture icon.
Now I’m over it. I can no longer bring myself to tweet praise or post a crown-adorned Ginsburg graphic with a millennial pink backdrop on Instagram. Maybe it’s because she reminds me of my own grandmother, who is a year younger than Ginsburg and has been battling lung cancer for over a year. As someone who was not long ago participating in weekly water aerobics classes and racking up speeding tickets, these days, it’s a feat for her to muster the energy to finish half a sandwich. A walk from her living room chair to the kitchen makes her feel winded. She can no longer drive herself to Costco to pick up her favorite peanut butter pretzels. While her brain is still as sharp as Harry Styles wearing a Gucci suit, her body has betrayed her. She’s not a justice on the Supreme Court but even if she was, I’d never want her to put her job before her health — and why would anyone expect her to?
The danger in our worship for Ginsburg is that we view her as an unstoppable force, when in reality, she’s not immortal. Like all of us, she is a human being trying to survive and yet, unlike most of us, she can’t afford to take a break when she’s ill. She’s not allowed to take the time to heal. She’s not allowed to rest.
We can’t change Ginsburg’s prognosis but we can take a step back and ask ourselves: How did we get to the point where so many people feel that an entire country’s future rests on one woman’s shoulders? Sure, we could introduce new rules about how justices are appointed or how long they’re allowed to serve but this would involve a structural transformation that would take years.
We don’t have that kind of time on our side. Instead, we can use this moment as a reminder of why we need to get to the polls in November, because cute memes and prayer hand emoji won’t help.