ArtWrite 9/20: Rose Jaffe
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court, I learned that she’d gone to high school with Ruth Miller Levine, aka my mother. Rather than dwelling on the dire implications of Justice Ginsburg’s death, I’ve been thinking about women like her and my mother who were born and raised in Brooklyn in the years leading up to World War II.
Although Ruth Miller was a bright student who was always placed in gifted classes with other “smart Jewish kids,” at James Madison High School, she wasn’t the academic powerhouse that Ruth Bader was. My mom went on to Syracuse, and then to Brooklyn College where she got a degree in the one field women were encouraged to pursue at the time, teaching. The fact that she had the potential to flourish in other careers didn’t matter. By the time she was 22, my mother was married with a baby daughter and would never returned to teaching. Ruth Bader Ginsburg married during her senior year at Cornell. When she entered Harvard Law School at 23, she had a 14- month old daughter.
I could surmise why RBG’s path diverged from the one my mother and most women of their generation took, but I’m more interested in considering the possibilities if they’d remained parallel. Would taking a more ambitious route have changed who my mother became as a parent? Maybe the issues that complicated our relationship (her concern with appearances, for example) would not have seemed so pressing if she’d been able to use her intelligence to do more than just decipher the coded labels at Loehmans. With a career, she likely wouldn’t have had the time to make my sister’s ice skating career her primary occupation or to obsess about my baby fat when I hit puberty.
Countless women like my mother were never given the freedom to pursue careers beyond teaching. What would the country be like today if these women had followed Ruth Bader’s lead? If 90 women had been in her graduating class at Harvard Law instead of 9? How many more inventions would exist? What music would have been written? Would the air be cleaner? Would gun control laws have been enacted? How much greater would the economic impact have been? Imagine if our country’s leaders had always mirrored the diversity of the people who lived here. Imagine.
When my mother told me she’d gone to high school with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she said, “Back then, she was Kiki Bader.” This was in 1993, and the new associate justice was years away from becoming the RBG she is today. Knowing nothing about her, I ran with the connotations of her homophonic nickname: In high school, Kiki must have been as fun, flirty, and cute as a new pair of boots. Hanging out with her must have been a real kick. But rewatching “RGB” on the eve of her passing quickly reminded me how far off base my assumptions had been. According to her closest friends, Kiki was a “deep thinker” with “quiet magnetism” and had no interest in small talk or girl chat.
While Rose Jaffe’s D.C. mural doesn’t capture the kicky Kiki I imagined 27 years ago, there’s a refreshing lightness to the portrait. RGB’s grin is positively telegenic. Birds, the ultimate symbol of freedom, fly above her, their wings echoing her Egyptian style collar. With her hands frozen in midair, Kiki smiles at us with the knowing delight of a magician who has just executed a mesmerizing trick.