“I ask no favors for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is they take their feet from off our necks.” ~ Sarah Grimke
It seems like a great many people have jumped on the Ruth Bader Ginsburg bandwagon recently. In 2018, two movies have been made about her. One RBG, a documentary, was released in May. The second, On The Basis of Sex, will be released in December (I’ll be heading to the theater to see it). Her intellect is marveled at, her exercise regime admired, and she has an entire Tumblr account dedicated to her exploits. The Tumblr account is where her nickname, the Notorious RBG, came from. Sometimes, people under close scrutiny do not fare well. The old cliché about how meeting your heroes, or examining them to closely, leads to disappointment can all too often prove true. But not so with RBG. The more I know about her life, the more I find to admire. This article showcases a small part of her story and just part of why I admire her.
When President Clinton was mulling over Supreme Court candidates in 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave him pause. Her credentials, as always in her career, were impeccable; she was more than qualified. What gave President Clinton pause were the optics. Clinton privately bemoaned, “The women are against her.” In a magnificent twist of irony, Ginsberg, who now is often hailed as an icon of the feminist movement, was not a popular choice with the feminist leaders of the time. Ginsburg’s voting record was in question. In the thirteen years preceding her appointment to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg had served in the federal court of appeals in Washington D.C. While there, her rulings had, at times, coincided with a conservative framework and feminist leaders worried how this record would translate to the Supreme Court and to female rights. They did not need to worry. Ginsburg knew exactly what she was doing.
RBG is smart. In my opinion, smart is too little of a word to cover what Ginsburg is. To me, she is intelligence personified. She began her law school career at Harvard Law, home of the Harvard Law Review. The Review is a respected and prestigious student publication with an impressive lineage, and Ginsburg was its first female member. She graduated from Cornell at the top of her class in 1954 and then at the top of her class from Columbia’s Law School in 1959. While her intelligence is obvious in her academic career, it is arguably even more apparent in her professional one. This is when the calmly calculated cunning of the Notorious R.B.G. came to the forefront. She was a woman who knew how to pick a battle, which was exactly what was necessary for her to make a difference in the lives of American women.
Ginsburg came into her profession in a time when women were widely discriminated against. For example, in Hoyt v. Florida (1961), the Supreme Court upheld the exemption of women from jury duty. This ruling both denied women a jury of their peers and continued to maintain the narrow sphere women were allowed to occupy. Nina
Totenberg, a legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), says that, in the time period (the 1960s), literally “thousands of state and federal laws discriminated on the basis of gender.” This environment was the impetus that led Ginsberg to establish, in conjunction with ACLU, the Women’s Rights Project in 1971. The purpose of the project, then, and now, was to ensure equality for women under the law. Ginsburg argued, “Men and women are persons of equal dignity and they should count equally before the law.” While a common concept in 2018, equality under the law for women was both novel and controversial in 1971. The controversy was amplified by the fact that equality for women was seen as a non-issue by many. More than a non-issue, many people believed gender inequality did not exist. In the years since Ginsberg has remarked, “I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.” Ginsberg believed to ensure equality for women, it was necessary to upend the “built-in assumptions about the appropriate roles for women and men,” in the legal system. The changes she desired would not happen overnight, but she was prepared to wait.
Ginsberg knew, for equality to become a reality, it was necessary to erode the framework which supported sexual discrimination. Until that framework was gone, nothing would truly change; and to accomplish that, she was going to have to play a long game. She would have to be patient. She developed a strategy, then, that would define the rest of her career; each move she made was “slow, but steady, and calculated.” While Ginsburg headed the Women’s Rights Project she made a point of picking cases she knew could win. On the surface, it sounds a little cowardly, until you remember Ginsburg was playing the long game. She was taking a macro- rather than a micro-view of the situation. In the early days of the Women’s Rights Project, Ginsburg bluntly stated, “Not all feminist issues should be litigated now, because some are losers, given the current political climate, and could set back our efforts to develop favorable law.” By choosing cases she knew were winnable, Ginsberg set legal precedents to support the rights of women. Beth Ann Macaluso describes Ginsburg’s actions thusly,
“Bit by bit, Ginsburg [constructed] an unshakeable legal foundation for women’s equality, which would hold until society was ready to pass a more sweeping measure…explicitly banning gender discrimination.”
Using the precedents set by winning these small cases, Ginsburg was able to win five of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court about gender equality. She waited, she chose her moment, and then she struck. This is one of the qualities I admire the most about Ginsburg, her patience. It must have been taxing at times for her to wait. I can only imagine how she must have had to steel herself, steel her team, in the face of the heartrending cases that surely paraded themselves through her purview. Still, she waited. Knowing that striking too soon was deadly for her cause, for women. Her patience, however, got her into trouble.
Her long game approach to winning equality was condemned as slow by many feminists of the time. Understandably, they desired more immediate and sweeping change. Women were suffering, and Ginsburg’s approach must have seemed like anathema. Go slow? No! We need change now. However, Ginsburg was sure of herself; both of the path she was making, and the change it would bring. She held her ground in the face of much censure. Her contemporaries may not have always understood the course she was charting, but Ginsberg did not mind. Once the trail was blazed, everyone would be able to use it. In the end, her strategy worked. The rights she fought for and won, have made a huge difference in the lives of American women. Not just a difference, Nina Totenberg claims that Ginsburg’s work has “changed the way the world is for American women.” RBG’s foresight was astounding. She saw a future few people of the time could comprehend. Her foresight, in my opinion, is one of her greatest qualities. Both her foresight and her amazing intellect were key in her successes. They are formidable traits. However, they are not what I find most admirable about her.
What I admire most, is her firmness of mind in the face of pressure. Sometimes, in the face of pressure, I can find myself wanting to yield to the dictates of others. To just go with the flow. This is not always a bad thing. Compromise is a necessary and good part of life. It promotes harmony. And frankly, most of the time, compromise for me involves little things. Like dinner at my sisters. I want tacos. She wants Korean. So, we get Korean tacos ( which are very good, by the way). However, there are times when there is a more serious issue at stake. Times when I need to take a stand for myself, for someone I love, or for my beliefs. Under pressure and censure, I can feel my own surety waver. “Maybe I am wrong,” I think, “Maybe, I should give in.” Then I remember Ruth. I remember her unflinching resolve. Her determination that her cause was just and her reasoning sound, and I take courage. When my cause is just, and my reasoning sound; I’m going to be like the Notorious RBG, and stand my ground.
© Julie Wright 2018
Cohen, Julie M and Betsy West, directors. RBG. Magnolia Pictures, 2018.
Anokarina. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” Flickr. Flickr. May 3, 2017. https://www.flickr.com/photos/anokarina/33577972474/in/photolist-9YiWra-DAJR2f-btygP7-rbUh3s-DdEs9i-4QQQMs-E1u2nF-TaaTnU-BvwBWZ-BvwCSg-C1NTL5-BvwBBv-Cim3YY-CqBmyQ-Jw6NXh-HCXbgv-EXkArW-BvpgNC-BvwCex-BvwChZ-Jw6Nhj-Jw6LNC-Jz7MKM-JsiPXD-5U8K39-JsiLU4-HD1syq-HCXcxP-HD1ubU/