On Saturday night, we sat with my mother in the hospice ward of Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey. My brother, exhausted from hours at her side, had gone home to walk his dog. My sister spooned melting chocolate ice cream from a Styrofoam cup into my mother’s mouth. My wife stroked her hair.
My mother, possessed of one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever known, was disoriented, her body failing her in her 90th year. On the television, which in the presence of my mother was always set to a news channel, a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg played and somehow for a fleeting moment, a spark returned to Mom’s eye.
My mother was a member of the forgotten but nonetheless still heroic majority of the greatest generation: its women. The men went to war. They died and sacrificed and were celebrated as heroes. But the women did something every bit as extraordinary. They advanced the transformation of the role of women, a transformation begun by their own mothers’ generation. And they did it in a world resisting them at every turn.
Like RBG, who attended Harvard Law School during the day and then returned home in the afternoon to care for her son, Carol Zeman Rothkopf made a career for herself as a writer and editor while still juggling the burdens of raising three kids and caring for my father in a very traditional way. She would prepare the household each day, get us all up and off to school, then take the bus from in front of a diner in Scotch Plains, New Jersey to the city.
There she would work on book projects, often encyclopedias and text books, until mid-afternoon when she came home to prepare the dinner for my father, clean the house, do what needed to be done. We would be put to bed and then she and my father would sit in the living room reading, talking about the world. Their conversations, like our dinner table conversations generally, were a journey through the great issues of our time and times past—from politics to foreign policy, from Dante and Tolstoy, about whom she had written, to debating the pivotal turning points in the history of Byzantium.
I do not remember a female friend of my mother’s who did not lead a life that was similar in its burdens. They worked and were the intellectual equals of their husbands, but they were also housewives. In business suits half the day and an apron for some of it, they engineered a change in the role of women, demanded equality, and, though they never fully got it, they changed the world.
RBG, one of the great living heroes of our time, won great court cases. Women like my mother also won key battles, made advances not in the law but in a hundred other fields and in how our society thought about them. But it was never easy for them. They gained new roles while having to bear the burden of the traditional ones. Their mastery reminds me of the title of Ginger Rogers’ autobiography, Backwards and In Heels. Fred Astaire was the greatest dancer of all time… except for his partner, who did everything he did backwards and in heels.
This battle she fought her whole life with grace and intelligence was why she was repulsed by the prospect of a misogynist like Donald Trump becoming president. From his first moment on the public stage she hated him with the intensity of 10,000 suns. I remember her speaking to me with tears in her eyes the day before the election in 2016 when she anticipated his defeat, saying, “My mother voted in the first election women could ever participate in. Now, I will get to vote for our first woman president.”
She was devastated with the election results and sustained herself through the years that followed watching MSNBC for every waking minute of her day, muttering and shouting at the screen and writing letters to senators and congresspeople, donating money to Democratic campaigns. For her, it was not politics as usual. It was that he was in every respect the antithesis of what a leader should be. The day before her death, a nurse, testing her lucidity, asked, “How do you feel about Donald Trump?” My mother whispered, “Hate him.”
Most gallingly, Trump was undoing all the achievements of her generation. Abroad, he was dismantling the international order they built, embracing the fascism and nationalism they defeated, and doing the bidding of the Russians they had contained and brought down during the Cold War. At home, his racism was a poisonous counterpoint to the civil rights gains of the 1950s and 1960s (a legacy celebrated in my house by signing us up as kids for the NAACP.) And on the issue of women, he was toxic, outrageous, repulsive. It was a heartbreaking and infuriating comedown for the country she loved. We had gone from the greatest generation to a president who was himself the least of an almost unimaginably lesser breed.
The classlessness of the president was revealed when as RBG struggled with illness last week, word leaked out of the White House that they were already preparing a shortlist to replace her. Fortunately, resilient and indefatigable as ever, she has recovered and thus far she has thwarted their plans which are in part to undo her legacy.
My dear mother, on the other hand, died on Sunday morning. Like soldiers in a war who fall without headlines but who played a critical role in helping to turn the tide of battle, she and her peers deserve celebration and gratitude beyond what they shall receive. And they deserve better than a president who out of ignorance and the other profound defects of his character is waging a war against all that she and her generation fought for, often silently, but ultimately with great success.
My mother raised three kids and wrote and edited more than three dozen books. I recall her last, about two great World War I poets, being published shortly after my father died in 2012. It was well received. It got a glowing review on the cover of the Times Literary Supplement. And she had a book party at which she, for the first time in her life, was the center of great professional attention. Then 84 years old, she gave a speech without notes that was gracious, witty and brilliant. She shined. All her life, she had been in the shadows of my father’s accomplishments—he had been a Holocaust survivor, a soldier, a scientist and professor at Columbia. And here she was on her own and I could not help but think, what else might she have done if she had not given up so much of her life, not just to us as a family, but to the constraining customs of her times.
Mom did not have much use for organized religion. But she did believe fiercely in the ability of our political system to combat ills like Trump. In the end, nothing so preoccupied or motivated her. Because she saw him not just as corrupt or traitorous, but as an enemy of the work of her mother, her husband, her generation and her own life, as an undoer of great goods and as an obstacle to future progress. She died loved by children and grandchildren, admired by friend and colleagues, but still with an inspiring degree of fierce hatred for the president and his ilk in her heart. And for that, and infinitely more, I will always love her.