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What Ruth Ginsburg’s Life and Work Mean to a Young Indian American Woman Like Me

What Ruth Ginsburg’s Life and Work Mean to a Young Indian American Woman Like Me

Asha Shajahan
  • We must resist some of the cultural norms against women that are unconsciously handed down in the Indian American community.

There’s always that special something that one keeps in a wallet. Maybe it’s a picture of a child, a spouse, a prayer, but for Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), it was a copy of the Constitution. It was sacred to Ruth, but it was the 14th amendment and its embodiment of protection of all people, that she held close. 

The passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a tragic loss to American democracy. But as a woman who reinvented herself every time she faced adversity, we have something to learn from Ruth’s legacy. 

Like Ruth, I’m a first generation American. Our families have the same ideals for quality education and hard work to succeed. Ruth was brought up at a time wherenice” girls didn’t speak up or make demands. Women were treated as weak and second class citizens. They were obliged to follow men. Unfortunately, this gender disparity is still present today, particularly in the Indian community. 

Women are told that they can’t have everything, but Ruth shows us otherwise. Women can have everything if they are financially independent, have a supportive family or partner, and an appetite to change the world. 

A feminist, Ruth devoted her life to gender equality. She put women on the same playing field as men. It wasn’t easy, yet she paved the path for not just the advancement of women but for us all. While there has been change to Indian laws on rape, dowry and gender equity like in the United States, these highly discriminatory practices are still taking place at alarming rates. Some of the cultural norms against women continue to unconsciously be handed down in the Indian American community as well.  

There is immense pressure in Indian society to marry at an appropriate age and be “settled.”  There is a lack of emphasis on the character traits of the person one should marry and more emphasis on the education and socio-economic class of the partner.

Women of today can definitely identify with Ruth. She was in law school while taking care of her infant child. She studied until her babysitter left and then played with her daughter while simultaneously caring for her husband who was battling cancer. A master of multitasking, she reportedly got just two hours of sleep a night at that time. Many sleep deprived mothers can relate to it. My own mother juggled two daughters, the household, a full time job and school. Like Ruth, her energy seemed endless but she was running on low battery. 

Ruth had the demands of an Ivy League education and would do her homework while helping her husband with his. She would transcribe his notes from his classmates when he was too sick to go to class. Some women would give up their careers in her situation. It’s difficult to be successful at work or school and care for children. Usually, one has to give in. However, this leads to problems with financial stability for women and dependency on men. Ruth’s mother died when she was 17 and the lesson she left her daughter was, “be a lady and be independent.” This was her way of saying, be able to fend for yourself. Ruth did just that. 

There is immense pressure in Indian society to marry at an appropriate age and be “settled.”  There is a lack of emphasis on the character traits of the person one should marry and more emphasis on the education and socio-economic class of the partner. Ruth attributes much of her success to the support of her husband. She stressed the importance of finding an equal partner, someone who respected, encouraged and held pride in her. 

Her marriage occurred at a time where men were the breadwinners that counted and women were not. Unfortunately, this rings true even today. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the traditional societal mindsets about the role of women. More women are forced to leave their jobs for childcare than men. In traditional Indian culture, it’s a norm that women’s work is at home first regardless of a woman’s education.

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Despite the standards of her times, Ruth found a partner who saw women’s work at home or on the job as important as a man’s. He cared that she had intellect not subordinacy. He was confident of his own ability so he never regarded her as a threat but as an equal. His concerns weren’t if she could cook, (she was a terrible cook), but rather what her passions were. His union with her was not for her to serve him but to grow together and support each other. He so loved and respected her as a giant in the field of law that he advocated for her supreme court nomination more than anyone else. Their marriage was a partnership that was not meant to break tradition but to advance it. The saying goes behind every successful man is a woman. Ruth demonstrated that it is also the other way around. 

Ruth was a tiny person yet a ferocious defender of ideals. She defied social norms well into her 80s wearing a super diva T-shirt while doing 20 push-ups three times a week. When injustice presented, she wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. She tackled pay discrimination, gender rights, and broke glass ceilings. With the courage and confidence to make a difference, she didn’t wait for someone else to handle a matter of injustice, she took it upon herself. The fear of societal judgements did not grasp her. Her failures made her more determined and all genders today reap the benefits of her labor.  

Ruth gained more popularity well into her 60s. When most people think their time to make a difference is up, the Notorious RBG continued to stand up for change. She proved age, gender, race or religion can’t hold back a life’s undertaking, if the appetite is there for it. Her mission to uplift and give voice to others stayed with her until she breathed her last. 

So, perhaps, this is why I’ve decided to put not the Constitution in my wallet, but a memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to serve as a reminder that my gender won’t hold me back. Women can have everything we dream, including leaving a lasting legacy to the world if we take the time to invest in ourselves, have a strong support system, and continue with fierce optimism toward a mission that paves the way forward for others.  


Asha Shajahan is a primary care physician, writer and podcaster from Detroit, MI. 

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