Ruth Bader Ginsburg was aware of cages that restricted women’s freedoms while pretending to protect them. The cage that kept Bradwell from her attorney license for instance, because apparently, the “timidity and delicacy that belongs to the female sex” was proper and natural and ill-suited for participation in civil life. The galling audacity!
A little over half a century later, Ginsburg would encounter a version of the same cage, qualified but unable to find employment. And so she fought discrimination on the basis of sex all the way to the supreme court, a fight that set pace for the rest of her remarkable life and career. It’s an uplifting story, but more importantly it’s an educational one for institutions and other ecosystems of opportunity that only pay lip service to diversity. RGB needed only one lucky employer to imagine the world as it had never been. We can probably thank such a failure of imagination for the value that she went on to create.
Her life leaves behind a powerful legacy, and important lessons about breaking cages, lessons that run the gamut from style to love.
1. Do not shun intellectual openness that allows for nuance and complexity
For most people who embraced the “Notorious RGB” moniker, Ginsburg was a trailblazer who represented their liberal voices.
But she was not the singular voice her staunchest fans thought she was, and did not subscribe to an extreme for us or against us stance. She might agree with the Roe v. Wade decision while raising questions about the principle on which it was based, her record as justice was anything but unquestionably progressive, and we certainly wish she had more context about Kaepernick’s kneeling before she called his protest dumb.
True, nuance does not evoke emotion and yet we are in dire need of evocative movements for racial justice, climate change activism, among other pressing needs. And yes, it’s difficult to contemplate nuance in the face of threat, in a context where our dignities, our very personhood is denied. And while all of this is true, we can broaden our capacity to engage with nuance, with certain compromises, with the cross-partisanship dialogue and cooperation that can suspend animosity to get necessary laws passed, pressing public issues addressed, and principled candidates elected.
That nuance has come to signify weakness of belief and failure in commitment is valid criticism. And yet I am not making an argument for an “un-nuanced” call to nuance in which all staunch commitments and belief systems are dismissed for lacking nuance. I am making an argument for a willingness to engage with details.
2. Do not marry down
Marty, Ginsburg’s supportive spouse, cooked for their family, baked birthday cakes for his wife’s clerks, and pushed a campaign to advocate for her nomination to the supreme court.
Long before there was a pandemic, we were asking women in heteronormative marriages to either give up the idea that they could have it all, or to lean in past workplace imbalances. That there are structural norms at work and at home that keep women below the glass ceiling has only become a more stark reality with the pandemic. During the lockdown, women are spending as much as 15 hours more on unpaid domestic work than men.This disparity exists across income groups and has far-reaching consequences. Women’s scholarship is for instance underrepresented in scientific research on COVID-19 and this has consequences for their careers but also for how we understand the disease.
Get yourself a Marty who shares your ambitions, and pays more than lip service to them by doing his share both at home and outside of it. Caitlin Moran writes of women marrying their glass ceilings. Well, do not marry yours!
3. Do not be less than you are, delicate and all
Much has been written about authenticity, about bringing one’s whole self to work, and about the pitfalls and opportunities thereof. Done well, I think authenticity pays off, and I think RGB would agree.
Photo: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States, Photographer: Steve Petteway