‘Fear Is Fuel’

Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

At a candlelit memorial service for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg outside New York’s Superior Court last night, hundreds of people gathered to mourn the life of a legal giant who opened the door for women in countless ways.

Few have done more to reshape the landscape for women’s rights in this country than Ginsburg. And yet because of the precipitous timing of her death, and Mitch McConnell’s promise to usher in a Republican nominee whose appointment could very well lead to the toppling of Roe v. Wade, women seem keenly aware that wallowing in grief is a luxury none of us can afford.

In the hushed, masked crowd, hardened activists and organizers stood shoulder to shoulder with teenagers and families with kids. The Resistance Revival Chorus sang protest anthems; a rabbi led the crowd in the Jewish mourner’s kaddish. Beneath the court steps, artists spray-painted a collective mural with quotes and six-foot-tall portraits, and mourners laid out flowers, candles, and photos. Through tears, many of the women the Cut spoke with said that while Ginsburg’s passing had filled them with fear, it also galvanized them with a new sense of purpose and a commitment to protecting the rights and freedoms that she spent her career fighting for.

“The idea is get out there and vote, but when you’re 16 you can’t do that yet.” — Cora Clum, student, 16

She’s given me the chance to get married to whoever I want, to feel like I can have an abortion. Her death was like a stab to the heart and a giant step backward. The idea is get out there and vote, but when you’re 16 you can’t do that yet. There’s this anticipation, this waiting, this feeling like you can’t do anything, like you’re immobilized because of this, in such a crazy, messed up, constantly-putting-you-down world. It seems like the only thing you can do is tell everyone else to go vote.

“What activism does is it focuses your attention and turns your fear into something good.” — Karen Ramspacher, researcher, 55

She really shone the light for women’s rights in so many ways, and broke down the doors step by step, moment by moment. She just kept forward momentum. That’s what we need, and it’s a great example for us all — just to keep going. I’m here with my friends who I’ve known through women’s health activism since the ’80s. We knew each other back in 1988 through the reproductive rights coalition and the women’s caucus of ACT UP, and then we started a group called WHAM [Women’s Health Action and Mobilization]. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said it really well last night. I feel fear for this moment, fear for our country, fear for the future of the world, fear for humankind. But fear is fuel. What activism does is it focuses your attention and turns your fear into something good. We used to say in ACT UP, “silence equals death and action equals life,” and that’s what I’m called to do. Every day I wake up and I’m like, what shit is wrong with the world and what can I do about it? I taught my kid, who is 14, to say, Mommy, you know what we haven’t done in a while? Protested.”

“My 11-year-old tucked me in last night because I was so sad.” — Sara McKay, editor, 44

“We’re here with our two sons — two moms, two sons. Our boys know all about her, we have a bunch of books about her that we read all the time. My 11-year-old tucked me in last night because I was so sad. They understand that we’re fighting for the soul of our country and that this is a really important moment in that fight. We sat and watched AOC’s [Instagram Live] this morning, as a family. She had some instructions, and we did the things she said. We had a family meeting about the things we’d halfheartedly committed to, like, Oh, we’re going to do postcards for voters like we did for the midterms and we did this texting thing, but now it’s like, we’re just going to go full throttle. Something that helped me yesterday was being reminded of something that activist Mariame Kaba says: that hope is a discipline. It was the phrase that got me through the day. Just the idea that hope doesn’t always come organically — sometimes you have to actively will it into existence.”

“Everything is at risk, everything is threatened right now.” — Adela Wagner, artist and visual activist, 30

It feels like the biggest fighter for all of us has just stepped down and left space for us to step up and fight. It feels so visceral because everything is at risk, everything is threatened right now. It makes me so scared. What we’re doing right now is we’re making a 50-yard-long collective canvas. It’s a collective artwork and everyone is invited to put something on it. People were asking me where it should go, like in a gallery, and I don’t really feel it should be behind closed doors or glass. It should be held by a lot of people. And I have a feeling there are a lot of protests awaiting us so this is going to show up and we’re going to hold it together.

“It’s tough to have space to mourn.” — Nathalie Molina Niño, investor and entrepreneur, 44

The chances of us getting out of this without seeing RBG’s legacy reversed and decades of basic rights being eroded — there’s a slight, slim path to win, but man it’s just getting narrower and narrower. It’s tough to have space to mourn. I haven’t cried yet. I’m sure I’ll be in the shower someday and just break down and have my moment, but I think we all have to be strong for each other and we all have to be strong for the next generations, some of whom have never seen anything but politics like this. We all have to model a different reality.

These interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

‘Fear Is Fuel’