My grandmother shared more than a name with the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last week at age 87.
The two women shared a birthplace — Brooklyn, New York. They attended the same high school, James Madison High School (my grandma was the class of 1947; Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated high school three years later). They shared an identity as Jewish daughters of immigrants who were lucky enough to escape Europe before the Holocaust. And they share a place in feminist history, as among the first cohort of women to enroll in Harvard Law School.
My grandmother, Ruth Dreyfus, was born in Midwood on March 22, 1930, soon after the Great Crash of 1929. The only daughter of European immigrants (my great grandmother, Isabel, was from Lublin, Poland, and my great-grandfather, Harry, was from Odessa, now Ukraine, the same place of origin as RBG’s late father), she grew up in partial poverty. After my great-grandfather lost his job during the Great Depression, my great-grandmother, who had no more than an elementary school education, worked to support the family, first in the garment sweatshops of the Lower East Side and later as a self-trained book-keeper. (RBG’s mother similarly worked in a garment factory before having children.)
Like my great-grandmother, RBG’s mother dreamed of her daughter achieving higher levels of education; both imagined their daughters would become teachers, then one of the only jobs deemed appropriate for an educated woman. (As the story goes, my great-grandmother tried to dissuade my grandmother from attending law school, for fear that “no one is going to want to marry you if you’re a lawyer.”)
In the face of stark misogyny, cynicism and criticism, both women went on to defy expectations and become lawyers. My grandmother was in the second graduating class of women from Harvard Law School; she graduated in 1954, two years before Ruth Bader Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard in 1956, as one of only nine women in a class of about 500 men.
Both women were asked by the then-dean of Harvard Law law school to justify why they took a spot that should have gone to a man; both women fought for employment after graduation, despite rising to the top of their respective classes; and both went on to fight for gender equality in their particular domains — Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a lawyer, law professor and finally a justice of America’s highest court; my grandmother, Ruth Dreyfus, as a solo practitioner in Stamford, Conn., who for 40 years fought to legalize “no fault divorce” in her home-state, among other accomplishments.
I heard the news last week of Ginsburg’s passing directly after the close of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. I felt a pang of loss not only for the cultural icon who had grown to define a generation of resistance, but for my grandmother. I felt the loss of a generation of women who fought to fundamentally shift the definition of what a woman — a wife, a mother, a lawyer, a journalist — could be.
When my grandmother passed away in 2006 at age 76, I was only old enough to know her as my grandma, who smelled of fancy perfume and decorated her Manhattan apartment with fine Asian art and fragile glass trinkets from her travels abroad. She was my grandma who lived on the same floor as her birthday day (22nd); who we would visit after watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on an icy November morning; who thought cherry tomatoes and multigrain crackers were “kids’ food” and who could not for the life of her understand my and my siblings’ preoccupation with ketchup.
When you lose someone, you lose the opportunity to ask that person questions. I never got a chance to ask my grandmother what is was like to be the only woman in classes intended and designated for men; I never got a chance to ask my grandmother if she remembered RBG personally, and what she was like. I never got a chance to ask my grandmother how she remained resilient in the face of rejection after rejection on the basis of sex. I never got to ask her what it was like to be the only mother working “outside the home,” as it was then described, amid a community of stay-at-home moms and tidy suburban homes.
My father, before he passed away last year, left me a legacy of yellowing books in my basement. With only a brief explanation, he told me this was my “grandmother’s library.” “I think you should have it,” he said.
The collection smells musty, and the paper covers are breaking like ice cracking off a windshield — Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” published the year before my grandmother was born; Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex.” As I read through these formative texts, I think about what the words must have meant to my grandmother, who had to run across Harvard’s sprawling campus to find a bathroom between classes because there were no readily available facilities for women at that time.
Through the lens of this aging library, I feel connected to my grandma not just as a family matriarch, but as a fellow woman fighting to push the dial forward, incrementally, for the sake of her daughters, and her daughters’ daughters. I feel connected to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a peer and classmate of my grandmother’s who shared her birthplace and immigrant story.
Support the New York Jewish Week
Our nonprofit newsroom depends on readers like you. Make a donation now to support independent Jewish journalism in New York.
I feel connected to a generation of women who defied expectations, while accepting that progress moves slowly, as much as we might wish it otherwise.