For years, activists in the District of Columbia have talked about renaming Woodrow Wilson High School, the 85-year-old Tenleytown school that serves much of Northwest Washington. For the last four months, amid the searing national conversations about race and history that followed the Minneapolis killing of George Floyd, it has seemed inevitable. On Tuesday, a top mayoral aide confirmed to the DC Council that the name would go—but said officials hadn’t settled on a new name.
And now, three days later, it looks like fate has sent a pretty strong sign of who that namesake should be.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose death drew hundreds of grief-stricken Washingtonians to an impromptu vigil on the Supreme Court steps, would be an ideal namesake for a school—and especially this one. In a city where the legacy of inequality is never far from the surface, she was a civil rights icon. In a city whose public school system has no major high schools named for women, she was a female trailblazer, the first woman tenured law professor at Columbia Law School, the second woman on the Supreme Court, and the strategist behind some of the most consequential advances in women’s rights in the history of the republic. In a capital that often feels neglected by the national political titans who work here, she was the rare denizen of that world who was also a regular at local theaters and galleries during her 40 years in DC. In an era of geriatric national leadership, the Notorious RBG was a person who became a youth icon in her ninth decade. And in a country where the tenor of public conversation has plummeted, she was a leader who managed to keep both her moral backbone and her ability to maintain friendships with adversaries.
Ginsburg would also be a fitting replacement for Woodrow Wilson. She was a woman who carried on the most idealistic aspects of Wilson’s progressive legacy, but without the personal racism and the political embrace of segregationists that blights the 28th president’s name. It was Wilson, after all, who put a previous generation’s progressive legal icon, Louis Brandeis, on the Supreme Court, a nomination that sparked the first real Supreme Court confirmation battle. (In a weird irony, the only Democrat to buck his party and oppose Brandeis was Nevada Senator Francis Newlands, whose name adorns a public fountain about a mile from Wilson High that neighbors have also pushed to rename because of Newlands’ own racist and segregationist history.)
All too soon, Donald Trump will nominate a successor to Ginsburg. Whoever it is, and however the confirmation hearings are organized, it will be a political battle that tears apart the country. Before then, as Ginsburg’s admirers mourn and gird for battle, DC should nominate a new high school name that will unify the city: Ruth Bader Ginsburg High School.