Recognizing her influence while acknowledging her shortcomings
This past Friday, September 18th, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) died at the age of 87. The collective grief Americans feel, coupled with a real fear over what this might mean with one more month before the presidential election, is palpable. However, it seems that grief has been spearheaded by white women, which is understandable when you look at RGB’s history with women’s rights, but should still raise concern.
Ginsburg has been framed as a feminist icon and a liberal hero for the last few years, namely for her work advocating for women’s rights. However, there is a reason why this narrative of the ‘Notorious RBG’ is carried out by a mostly-white female majority. Ginsburg was far from perfect when it came to progressive liberalism.
In this time immediately following her passing, it is important to honor her legacy and the lives she changed in this country. Yet, it is also important to recognize that the hero status she received is not necessarily deserved and the idolizing of a political figure, especially one who has failed to master the art of intersectionality, can be hurtful to those who she failed to protect.
Ginsburg’s story is harrowing. Born in Brooklyn with a Jewish immigrant father and a first-generation American mother in 1933, Ginsburg was not brought into a world or a country set up for her to succeed.
Yet, she was an incredibly hard worker and a star student. The day before RBG’s high school graduation, where she was slated to speak, her mother died of cancer.
Still, that fall, Ginsburg still entered into her first semester of college. She would go on to graduate from Cornell as the highest-ranking female in her class and enter into Harvard Law school as one of the nine women in a class of about 500 men. She ended up transferring to Columbia, where she graduated top of her class, again.
RBG’s early career was painted by a struggle to get hired on the basis of her gender. She would go into academia for a number of years, building her credibility (though unnecessarily so), and then on to found the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
She would later be nominated by then President, Jimmy Carter, in 1980 to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and of course, was nominated to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton in 1993.
To be clear: Ginsburg was not an impressive woman, she was an incredibly impressive person. Her history, her education and her career all collectively show that. The good work she would go on to do also further defends this point because RBG did do a lot of good work.
In the case of United States v. Virginia, her campaign showed that women could not be excluded from admission to school simply on the basis of their sex. And her famous ‘dissent’ tagline came from the case Ledbetter v. Goodyear, where she staunchly rejected pay discrimination and helped pave the way for equal pay legislation under the Obama administration in 2009.
She was a staunch supporter of women’s reproductive freedoms and the imperative to allow Americans to have autonomy over their bodies.
The things that women have a right to do in this country as a result of RBG are extensive: the ability to keep from getting fired while pregnant, admittance into the military, protection from violence, being able to get a credit card in your own name, getting divorced because of domestic violence, adopting a baby as a single mother, opening a bank account, living with a partner while unmarried and so much more.
This woman made waves and these waves resonated with many people, earning her the nickname ‘Notorious RBG.’ For many feminists, Ginsburg stood as the shining example of powerful femininity; she is liberal but dainty, she is a politician but also a mother, she has a husband who watches the kids but they also have a happy marriage. Here she is! The woman who can truly do it all. It’s no wonder she was a beacon to many.
However, and this is a big however, RBG has also had her share of problematic moments. Moments that should be enough to keep her from being seen as a liberal hero and certainly from being seen as the liberal hero.
Perhaps her most famous mistake would be calling the actions of San Francisco quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, “really dumb” when he chose to protest against racial inequality and the actions of the police. As she said, “If they want to be stupid, there’s no law that should be preventative. What I would do is strongly take issue with the point of view that they are expressing when they do that.”
This was in 2016, and even then her loyal following was uncomfortable with these remarks. So RBG apologized for what she said and tried to plead ignorance, saying she didn’t fully understand the situation when she spoke. As a national leader and politician, it is an issue to suggest that kneeling is a “stupid” form of protest just as it is an issue to make comments to the press on the validity of said protest before you fully understand the scope of what you’re talking about. Either way, it’s not a good look.
As far as her politics are concerned, the fierceness with which RBG is often portrayed, either in films or in the media, as the lipsticked female in a sea of men, fighting for equality, doesn’t really check out. That fierceness which might have defined her early career largely fizzled out when she took her position on the Supreme Court.
When it came to issues of police authority, black voter suppression, or the issue of solitary confinement (where African Americans are grossly overrepresented), Ginsburg could, at best, be described as having lukewarm opinions, but certainly, she was not the passion-prone and enthusiastic instigator of justice she is often made out to be.
With this, some of Ginsburg’s earliest work, which inspired the definition of her career as an advocate of women, was largely built upon the work of Black activist and lawyer, Pauli Murray, who was the first to argue that the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment applies to women. This is the argument later used by Ginsburg (though she did credit Murray with the idea).
RBG also remained steadfast in her defense of the friendship she had with former Justice Antonin Scalia. Having friends who challenge you in your work but are still able to relax with you in the right setting is important and healthy. But when your friend is someone who has compared gay rights to murder, suggested African Americans don’t do well in competitive school environments and that discrimination based on someone’s sex isn’t denied by the constitution, maybe you aren’t the liberal hero everyone is making you out to be.
This worship of RBG is unhealthy for any celebrity, but especially a politician. Politicians have agenda’s, and Ginsburg’s agenda, while great for women, was lacking in the racial intersectionality necessary to allow for absolute adoration. By painting her as a hero, we invalidate the concerns of women of color, of women who aren’t quite so dainty or civil and the people who are making active and righteous moves to help oppressed groups right now.
The ideation of Ginsburg is what led her to reject the Democratic party’s request to step down in 2014. Now listen, the idea of leaving a position you’ve worked your entire career for to usher in someone else is hard and it might even seem unfair. However, it was that decision to keep her place on the court, for her ‘fans,’ that has opened the door for another Trump-appointed justice.
RBG’s position was not some job where one’s legacy should be held above everything else. Had she chosen to step down in 2014, reproductive rights might not have been at risk, nor would have the status of DACA recipients and those who benefit from the Affordable Care Act. If she weren’t so adored, we might have been better able to see why keeping a chronically ill judge on the court when approaching a contentious election year was problematic, even if she has had an impressive career.
It can be hard hearing that one of your personal heroes maybe wasn’t a hero at all, I know, I too played into the narrative of the notorious, the brave, the perfect feminist that was RBG. Still, we cannot on one day promise to listen to the needs and concerns of the historically unheard in this country and then the next day ignore them because they don’t fit within our comfort zone.
RBG changed the lives of every woman in this country, and she did so in a way that was revolutionary, and yes, inspiring. At the same time though, she has had a history of ignoring Black voices, remaining impartial when a strong opinion was sorely needed and befriending individuals who would challenge the basic human rights of many people in this country.
We wouldn’t allow this behavior in our friends and loved ones, why should we allow it in a political figure?
Ginsburg has just passed and having this conversation now might seem difficult, but that’s why we need to have it. As posts fill your social media feeds and stories fill your news shows, ask yourself why it is typically white women spearheading her message and why we give her permissions we wouldn’t give any other politician right now?
We don’t need to repeat why she was so great, there are plenty of stories, posts and tote bags to reiterate that right now. What we need to do is look at the ways politicians can do better and how we, as citizens, can be more mindful in which people we worship.
Before her death, Ginsburg told her granddaughter, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” If you want to channel your grief and fear somewhere, channel it here, into making sure that the decision to install a new supreme court justice isn’t made one month before the election when Obama was not allowed to install a justice ten months before the election.
And please, for the love of all that is good, vote.