Kate Kelly, 39, saw the text come through in “Skulking Ladies,” an ongoing group message with five of her closest female friends.
“I’m sobbing,” it read.
It was Friday night, and Kelly, an attorney and activist, hadn’t seen the news yet. She texted back: “Are you okay? What do you need? Why are you sobbing?”
Then came the next text: “RBG.”
Kelly immediately started crying. The news confirmed her fears: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday at 87.
The death of Ginsburg — an “icon” who spent her career championing women’s rights — felt, to Kelly and her friends, like a personal loss. Women expressed a similar onslaught of grief. For some, it was immediate fear about what might happen to Roe v. Wade, same-sex marriage or birth control access if a conservative justice replaces Ginsburg’s seat. For others, it came from losing a feminist symbol. And for many, turning to other women felt like the natural thing to do.
“It was odd to be living through this historical event that you know is going to have this lifetime impact on what’s happening to you and the people you love in real time,” Kelly says. She felt lucky to be at home with her girlfriend, but she also felt lucky to have “Skulking Ladies,” which was blowing up with messages, everyone wondering what was going to happen, what they were going to do. Kelly had dressed up as Ginsburg for Halloween a couple years ago, so she sent photos of the costume to the group. As Kelly puts it: “We were just kind of getting each other through it.”
Sharing a common identity and lived experience is part of what sets female friendships apart in moments of grief, according to Marisa G. Franco, a psychologist and friendship expert. When it comes to losing someone like Ginsburg, she says, some women may feel like they are losing part of their own identity — perhaps the part of them that saw a role model in her, or the part that advocates for women’s rights. “And when we’re grieving, we just want emotional support,” she says. “Other women are feeling with us just by default, whereas men might have a different attachment to the issue.”
That was the case for Shoshana Gould, a 29-year-old development officer who lives in Oakland, Calif. On Friday, she received texts from several family members and friends — and everyone who texted her was a woman, save for her dad, who “really knows how much RBG means to me and just gets it,” she says.
Given other recent events that have implications for women’s lives, the loss of Ginsburg felt familiar to Gould. “Whether it’s the Kavanaugh hearing or Trump getting elected or even something like the Brock Turner case, it’s become so personal and we can see ourselves as this collective group of woman-identifying people who are all of a sudden scared,” she says. “I think it’s really comforting, and also empowering, to come together.”
Meg Maguire, a 23-year-old living in Minneapolis, says she has a good mix of female and male friends. But on Friday, chatting with one of her male friends didn’t help her cope with the loss of Ginsburg — it did the opposite. She told him she was “really freaked out” by the justice’s death and what it might mean for women’s rights. He responded that “it isn’t going to be like ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ or anything,” she says.
While Maguire believes her friend “genuinely” meant that statement to be comforting, she “was just like, ‘Um, yeah, no.’ I didn’t take it the way I think he thought I would.”
Franco, the psychologist, says that men tend to process their grief more cognitively, including thinking about what actions they can take to work through it, whereas women, in general, tend to experience grief more emotionally — they might crave a friend saying, “I feel sad, it’s okay to feel sad, too.”
The ability to be vulnerable in friendships is also paramount in times of grief, Franco says, and women’s friendships tend to be more emotionally vulnerable than men’s friendships with other men — a holdover from gender stereotypes about what it “means to be a man.” It’s interesting to look at what happens when people enter into heterosexual relationships, Franco says: When men and women get married, men tend to lose a lot of their close male friendships and instead turn to their wives as emotional support.
“Whereas women keep their friendships very much alive,” she says. “Women are much more likely to have a platter of friends to work through emotions with.”
Of course, the pandemic has changed how anyone can process grief and has only amplified the stress of it, according to Franco. Such was the case for Jacqueline Beatty, 32, a history professor at York College of Pennsylvania. Beatty was part of several messaging groups after learning of Ginsburg’s death — one with friends and roommates from graduate school, another with mentors, a third filled with her aunts and a cousin. Beatty, who lives alone, FaceTimed her mom, too, and they both watched the news on MSNBC — “as if we were sitting on the couch together,” she says.
But texting and FaceTiming didn’t feel like enough; being “cooped up” during the pandemic has been “very difficult,” she says. So on Sunday, she made the two-hour drive down to D.C., where she met up with a friend from graduate school. They drove to the Supreme Court together, masks on and windows down. When they got to the Supreme Court, where flowers and signs were strewn at the base of the steps, Beatty knew she had made the right decision. Being able to be in the presence of others was “necessary,” she says: “I think it was an important demonstration of what people are feeling right now — frustrated and a lack of action because of the pandemic, but we’re able to come together to honor this woman and show solidarity with one another.”
For Beatty, who studies women in the revolutionary period, leaning on her female friends throughout the weekend has brought to mind what she witnesses in her own work. “The women I study are often reliant on these groups, particularly when male patriarchal forces in their lives let them down,” she says. “So this kind of shared gender empathy really becomes their last line of defense.”
Gould was also able to process the justice’s death at a socially distanced picnic over the weekend with a friend who she’s known since preschool — another Jewish woman, like herself and Ginsburg. In the wake of Ginsburg’s death, they both learned of the Jewish belief that if someone dies on Rosh Hashanah, as Ginsburg did, they’re considered righteous.
“We were talking about just what she means to us as women and then also as Jewish women,” she says. “There’s another element to that of something we’d never seen before Ruth.”
Kelly feels grateful that she has the “Skulking Ladies” for everything, “from career advice to what throw pillows look the best,” she says. In remembering Ginsburg, she says, she only hopes that the late justice had that, too.
“It’s ironic, because it feels like many times, she walked alone,” Kelly says, pointing to the photo of Ginsburg in her law school class, where it looks like she’s the only woman “among a sea of men in suits” (she was one of nine women among 552 men when she started at Harvard Law School in 1956). In so many situations, Kelly says, it seemed Ginsburg was surrounded by men.
“I don’t know her inner life, but being in that environment, you need the support of other women,” Kelly says. “I don’t know if RBG had that, but I really hope she did.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misstated where Ginsburg graduated law school from. We regret the error.