Ruth Bader-Ginsburg knows what it’s like to be the only woman in the room and she tells us all about it in a piece in the NYTimes today on The Place of Women on the Court. I’d advise reading the whole thing in the July 12 edition of the New York Times Magazine. The link above seems to be a shortened version of the post I read this afternoon and you may not get the full flavor of Ginsburg’s feminism. Ginsburg may come off as soft spoken but she wields a big stick. She knows herself in the best Greek tradition and she wants you to know it too. She is a person who expects to be recognized as such.
She has some interesting and counterintuitive thoughts on feminism as well. This Q&A was particularly revealing:
Q: What do you think about Judge Sotomayor’s frank remarks that she is a product of affirmative action?
JUSTICE GINSBURG: So am I. I was the first tenured woman at Columbia. That was 1972, every law school was looking for its woman. Why? Because Stan Pottinger, who was then head of the office for civil rights of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, was enforcing the Nixon government contract program. Every university had a contract, and Stan Pottinger would go around and ask, How are you doing on your affirmative-action plan? William McGill, who was then the president of Columbia, was asked by a reporter: How is Columbia doing with its affirmative action? He said, It’s no mistake that the two most recent appointments to the law school are a woman and an African-American man.
Q: And was that you?
JUSTICE GINSBURG: I was the woman. I never would have gotten that invitation from Columbia without the push from the Nixon administration. I understand that there is a thought that people will point to the affirmative-action baby and say she couldn’t have made it if she were judged solely on the merits. But when I got to Columbia I was well regarded by my colleagues even though they certainly disagreed with many of the positions that I was taking. They backed me up: If that’s what I thought, I should be able to speak my mind.
Q: Is that another example of how you’ve worked with men over the years?
JUSTICE GINSBURG: I always thought that there was nothing an antifeminist would want more than to have women only in women’s organizations, in their own little corner empathizing with each other and not touching a man’s world. If you’re going to change things, you have to be with the people who hold the levers.
Ohh, Ruth. You are my kind of feminist.
Now, I am going to probably offend some people I hold dear and I sure as heck don’t want to dismiss their observations but the idea that men somehow envy women because of some unique quality that we possess is just dead wrong. Maybe it was true 5000 years ago when men didn’t know the specifics of reproduction but it hasn’t been that way in a long, long time. The history of women and their religions and the long lost matriarchy may be a very interesting subject but what motivates most people, both men and women, is power. And since time immemorial, men have had more of it.
I attribute it to upper body strength. Women are easily overpowered by men physically unless they are trained in self defense. We can still see the results of the physical subjugation of women in countries like Sudan and Afghanistan where rape is used as a weapon of mass destruction. But even in more developed societies, the physical strength advantage translates into anachronistic customs, transmitted through scripture and years of cultural indoctrination. Men are worth more. They get more attention in school, more opportunities to excel. They are more believable. They get better projects, more praise, bigger promotions. As a result, they earn more and have more authority. It’s just the way it is.
Some women have looked upon the patriarchy and decided it’s too big. It’s pervasive, oppressive, demoralizing. So, they retreat. They look back upon the golden age when women were mysterious fertile creatures who mystified men and held their own meetings in the red tent. A community of women, for women, about women. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s the kind of thing you want to do in your own free time. But retreating to the company of women and insisting that it be called equal is, as Ginsburg says, antifeminist in the same way that segregation was racist. Separate can never be equal. (Prophylactic: I realize that many women do not see themselves as retreating. But there are quite a few who back off when it comes to full equality and seem to suggest that women can co-exist in some separate legally protected sphere. Nah-gah-happen.)
If you want equality, you must stand in the middle of the room of men and demand that they treat you with respect and then hold them accountable if they do not. Every time they screw up, they must be smacked on the nose with a rolled up newspaper until they are trained to not pee on your shoes. They aren’t interested in your feminine mystique. They could care less if El had an Asherah. All they’re interested is whether they get more of the pie. If you want your equal share, you have to demand it and act like a person first, woman later.
What Ginsburg didn’t discuss is the role of the post-feminist women who gave their support to Obama over Clinton in last year’s election. They were equally anti-feminist because they failed to evaluate the candidates on their leadership qualities. Their ability to turn their back on Clinton and not evaluate her fairly was supposed to somehow prove that they had transcended gender and race. Instead, they were clobbered by race. I found this comment by Unree at ReclusiveLeftist that sums it up:
Looking at white people over the last couple of decades, I’ve observed an increasing fraction of them eager to declare their opposition to racism. Especially white women but white men too. Commendable, I thought (and still think).
For white Americans in this demographic, Barack Obama offers a lot. He has carefully kept civil rights in general, and race in particular, away from his voting record and campaigns. He demands nothing from his white supporters. He causes no discomfort.
His greatest gift of all, of course, is fending off feminism. Obama is a boon to fauxgressive dudes and the women who want their favors. White supporters get to keep whatever privilege they now have–economic, gender-based, you name it–along with their self-label of progressive. For the cohort I’m thinking of, anti-racism is the best banner to cover up their misogynous resistance to gender justice. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin had to pay the price.
I don’t think there is any doubt that women have taken a beating in the past 10 years, first from Republicans, then from the Democrats. The PF Flyers who have their minds so wide open their brains have fallen out have set us back even farther. As Ginsburg suggests throughout her interview, the struggle is not over yet and we have to continue to push forward, challenging cultural strereotypes and championing the personhood of women.
Ginsburg holds out hope. I think she’s right that in the next generation, we are going to see the culture undergo a rapid change, discarding the stereotypes of the past. There are more women in the workplace, with more education and with greater access to constantly evolving technological innovations. Our presence and growing expertise will have a profound effect on the way we are perceived but only if believe that we are entitled to it. Let’s hope that the new leadership of NOW will once again be a visible and vocal presence, demanding accountability for the gross sexism and misogyny of the past several years. In the meantime, get out there, ladies, and be bold. Make them take you seriously and whack them on the nose until they get the message.