The year 2020 has been full of lessons for us. On 19th September, one of the most iconic figures and a role model for young women and men, Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away. I felt so upset by the simple fact that this is it. That this is all we get to hear from the infamous Notorious RBG (a name given to her given her continuous dissent and liberal rulings) for as long as we will live. That I would never hear her quaint soft voice of reason stirring people in the right direction again.
I spent my morning revisiting her documentary on Netflix and just like the first time, it had a profound impact on me. Some of the things she said would probably be termed “too liberal” “too feminist” “irrelevant for this day and age” etc. But that’s the thing, right? As society progresses and time passes, we have to incorporate the principles of what great thinkers like her have said, in this case, dissented, and modify it to the very real situations we face today such as reproductive rights, gender pay gap, political representation etc.
As I try to recreate her journey as a girl, a lawyer, a judge and a spouse I am going to try and draw a conclusion hoping that the reader would understand why young women at the starting line of their careers and lives feel especially disheartened on this fated day.
While there are disturbing well, almost scary implications of her passing especially on the US election, this is just an insight into the kind of person she was and her beliefs and ideas as a female lawyer of her time. I believe that her story will give us the strength we need to power through all the difficulties we are bound to face if things go the wrong way, not just in these elections but the future of humanity as a whole.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the 2nd woman to be appointed as a judge in the United States Supreme Court. She has been a formidable influence in changing gender biased laws and norms in the USA. She used her expertise as a legal professional to fight cases of gender-based discrimination both for men and women. She was a fierce believer of liberal values and propagated the same through exceptional hard work and charisma.
She says that the two lessons that she learnt as a girl from her mother were: “Be a lady and be independent“. In her life, Ruth had faced multiple remarks and casual sexist comments for she worked at a time when men just did not understand what women wanted. They couldn’t fathom that women could want more than to be housewives or mothers.
At that time, Ruth was a lady. A calm and dignified lady who, in her own words, saw the ridicule and mockery by men in court “as teaching moments” or an “opportunity to teach kindergarten students” rather than resorting to anger. This, I believe, is a great takeaway for women like me, who tend to lose it a little when confronted by whether right-wing conservatives or just ignorant people in general.
By independent, she meant that she could get married and be a homemaker for all it took, but it was important to be able to fend for yourself when the time came.
As a lawyer, her first case was against gender-based discrimination in Fontiero v. Richardson, in front of the nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court. She talked about women being branded as inferior and the struggles of being second class citizens in a country that guaranteed equal protection of laws and liberty in its Constitution.
She quoted Sarah Grimke, a noted women rights advocate, who said in 1837 something that most of us still resonate with today, “I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
In Wienberger v. Wisenfeld she advocated the right of a man to maternity allowance and used this phenomenal legal strategy to make her point about gender-based discrimination. She famously also said, “The gender line helps to keep women not on a pedestal, but in a cage.” When asked how many justices she wanted to see on the bench of the Supreme Court she said, “Why not 9?” She believed if no one ever questioned 9 men being on the bench then why should 9 women be any different. That is the dream she saw for the future while she made history.
As a judge, she took bold and powerful decisions and in the case against Virginia Military Institute, an all-boys military school, that did not allow women to enter as cadets declared, “Some women can meet the physical standards VMI imposes on men, are capable of all the activities required of VMI cadets, and would want to attend VMI if they had a chance. This opinion does mark as presumptively invalid a law that denies women an equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on what they can do.”
An important statement that broke the centuries-old bias that women are just not as strong or as tough as men. Today, VMI has many female cadets.
In the landmark equal pay case that the Supreme Court accepted discrimination but rejected compensation merely based on the case not being filed at the right time Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg did not shy away from expressing dissent. She stated in her dissenting opinion “The Court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination. Congress intended to govern real-world employment practices and that world is what the Court ignores today. Initially, you may not know that men are receiving more. Only over time is there a strong cause to suspect that discrimination is at work.”
This led to the passing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. She makes an important point that is worthy of our attention here. It is that you might not realize that you are being discriminated against in the real-world practices because they are so ingrained in our society. And that when such injustice comes to light, it should be rectified immediately.
The work and life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an inspiration for women across the world. She lived in a time when sex discrimination was not even considered a problem let alone being addressed by the judges of the time. She used her skills to be heard and to break barriers for women across the USA.
Being shy or reserved is often seen as a weakness in the current society. Ruth is a perfect example of what a woman could achieve if she chose to use the resilience and dignified calmness she exhibited throughout her lifetime.
She always talks about the exceptional support she received from her partner, Marty. His support and love were so deep and true that he never felt threatened by her success, in fact, he was to a large extent, the reason for it. They lived a beautiful life together and Marty was a successful lawyer and they brought up their children in a household where workload always shared equally. There is so much to learn from her domestic life as well as her professional achievements.
I hope that some of these ideas moved you as much as they moved me. Her life is an inspiration for those of us who know that there is still a long way to go for equality and those who come from restricted and traditional communities and cultures.
Feminism in South Asia is terribly misinterpreted today and I hope that some of my favourite sayings by this iconic woman helps you understand feminism and fight for equal rights for women in your own surroundings. Like she famously said, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Unfortunately, she won’t be around passing quirky remarks and wearing her beautiful lace neckties at Court anymore however her work is timeless and will continue to inspire women and men to stand up for what they believe in, for generations.