Brainstorm HealthBrainstorm DesignBrainstorm TechMost Powerful WomenCEO Initiative

Anita Hill remembers Ruth Bader Ginsburg: ‘You don’t have to be in the winning column to be powerful’

October 1, 2020, 9:31 PM UTC

The passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month sent the country into a state of mourning and also political chaos, two elements that many felt were at odds with one another. While many wanted to take the time to reflect upon the actions of the 87-year-old feminist icon, who was the driving force behind the legal fight for women’s equal rights in the 1970s, others immediately began to think about who would replace her on the court and how the fight would play out just weeks before the 2020 presidential election. 

As vigils were being held outside courthouses across the country, President Donald Trump was working on selecting his pick for Ginsburg’s replacement, Amy Coney Barrett. As Ginsburg shattered yet another ceiling, becoming the first woman and first Jewish American to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol, the President and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were figuring out how to push their nominee forward and buck election-year precedent. Democrats, meanwhile, geared up for a fight. 

Even Ginsburg’s last words were political in nature. “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new President is installed,” she dictated as a statement to her granddaughter just days before her death. 

Her straightforward and policy-minded focus up until her last moments were not out of character, according to Lisa Caputo, executive vice president of marketing, communications, and customer experience at The Travelers Companies Inc. Caputo remembered working at the White House on the Sunday when President Bill Clinton interviewed her for her role on the Supreme Court. Caputo was particularly taken aback by Ginsburg’s casual garb, juxtaposed with the President’s suit and tie.

“She was on the level,” Caputo said, speaking during Fortune’s Most Powerful Women virtual summit on Thursday. “Disarmingly so.” The President remarked that he had “the conversation of a lifetime” with the Justice, Caputo recalled. 

Ginsburg was pragmatic, added Anita Hill, professor of law, public policy, and women’s studies at Brandeis University. Ginsburg understood that change took time and that a dissent could be just as powerful as a ruling. “You can actually make change when the decisions go in the other direction,” said Hill, who first met the Justice at a conference a year after the congressional hearings in which Hill accused then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. “You don’t always have to be in the winning column to be powerful.” 

Hill recounted a story she’d heard: that Ginsburg had taken her book and prominently displayed it on her bookshelf at the Supreme Court. There was “a feeling she had taken a part of me there, which was the only way I was going to get there in the 1990s,” Hill recalled. “It was the affirmation I needed. Not that I wanted her to pick sides, but I wanted someone to acknowledge that I had a side that was worth hearing.”