Who Got It Right as a Woman: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Today’s post was supposed to be about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, another excellent example of American womanhood, but it only seems fitting to pay tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. RBG, a titan of American law and arguably the best feminist America has ever had. Her death is nothing short of tragic, and it leaves our country and its women with a huge loss. This is a painful post to write, understandably. What makes her an exemplary model of womanhood? Here are some thoughts:

-She was always a lady. Her mother had given her advice to be a lady, meaning she needed to be independent, and not let negative emotions control her. RBG embraced womanhood, never denied the fact that she was a woman, always presenting herself elegantly. She loved wearing different collars with her robes, had good taste in art, and came across as someone with a sense of propriety rather than brash vulgarity. Diminutive and soft-spoken, her demeanor belied a formidable intellect.

She was smart as hell. The first time I saw Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak was on a panel of women in law that was being presented on C-SPAN. Never in my life had I heard anyone choose their words so carefully. It is a tremendous accomplishment even today, for anyone male or female, to attend Harvard and Columbia Law schools (where she made the review) as well as Cornell University (where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa). She knew her facts and she knew them cold. She spent countless hours researching and writing and was highly informed–perhaps this was why her male peers were so intimidated by her, because the open secret is that nothing is as intimidating to men as an intelligent woman.

She used facts and stayed calm in order to create great social change. While numerous activists were outspoken, radical, and even abrasive, RBG worked within the system–the most rigid system in the country: the law–and quietly and steadily helped dismantle policies that discriminated against women, minorities, and even men. No one could dispute her ideas without being equally informed and calmly persuasive.

Feminism was about gender equality. Many feminists in the 60s and 70s became quite radical and partisan; their strategy was to remedy the centuries of gender-based oppression by fighting for things as individuals and dismantling patriarchal structures in society. For many of them, this meant opting out of marriage, childbearing, or even relationships with men. Unfortunately, American feminism still often bears the stigma from these individuals–even Gloria Steinem, the poster child for this movement, has in some ways done ordinary American women a disservice. But RBG never bore a deep hatred or contempt for men even as she fought vehemently against the entrenched discrimination against women. Her greater belief was in gender equality, for when she encountered a case in which a widower and single father, Stephen Wiesenfeld, did not receive his late wife’s pension after she died in childbirth, she fought for him to be able to receive benefits just as a widow would. While she stood up for women like nobody else, she also valued men.

She got along with the enemy. This is especially important at a time like now, when America (both its people and its politicians) is more polarized than it has ever been for decades. She vehemently disagreed with the conservatives in the court, like Justice Antonin Scalia; however, the two of them were very close friends outside of work, sharing many common interests such as opera and celebrating holidays together. She was often questioned about this, and her response was to say that their shared humanity and friendship were greater than their differences. An opera was even made about the two of them, thereby immortalizing the justices through art.

She was happily married and a mother. Ruth Bader Ginsburg had the great fortune to choose a spouse who would support her not only in her career, but also in her personal life. Martin Ginsburg valued his wife’s intellect in a way that was rare for his time and encouraged her to do what she believed in. While many men do this today, they do not often take the action needed to ensure a woman is not overburdened at home. Martin Ginsberg famously did the cooking, helped care for the children, and reputedly campaigned for her to be nominated as a Supreme Court justice. What comes across in interviews is how much Ruth loved her husband, and how happily married they were for decades. It is inevitable that she would have struggled with work-life balance. But the point is, she did not become radical or bitter about “traditional” life choices even as she lived as a very modern woman.

She never let adversity stop her. This is also extremely significant, as we live in an age of cancel culture, hypersensitivities, and a lack of personal responsibility. Ruth Bader Ginsburg scarcely got to know her sister who died as a child. She still graduated high school, despite the fact that her mother died the day before. She chose to get married even though many educated women had to stop working once they bore children. She still spoke fondly of her husband even though she was battling the very male establishment. She persisted in becoming a lawyer, even though she had to make a case for her presence simply because she was a woman, and even though no one would hire her, despite having a degree from Columbia Law. Later in life, when her serious ailments arose, Ruth Bader Ginsburg valiantly battled them, not letting them stop her pursuit of legal justice. Feminists such as Gloria Steinem or–even worse–Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon seem to be excuse makers in comparison. Ruth Bader Ginsburg faced the same obstacles as everyone else, but she did not seem to feel the need to adopt some sort of radical role as a woman.

It is a tragic loss for our country, and now we are left with a crisis. I personally belong to the camp that feels she should have retired during Obama’s administration. It is true that there would have been no guarantee she would have been replaced by another liberal; however, anyone Obama chose would have been better than anyone Donald Trump chooses. It was not wise to bet on having another Democrat in the White House after two terms of Obama as we have not had three consecutive Democrats as president since FDR (and his was a special case due to the war). This was her one great flaw in a lifetime of tremendous public service to this country. One can only hope that there will be another female superhero in the legal system of this country, although nobody could truly take the place of the tiny, elegant woman with the owlish look and calm, measured voice. Thank you, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for being such a wonderful role model for young women–and men.

Lilly Ledbetter, Mika Brzezinski, and American Astronauts: True American Feminists

This week’s post is more of a reflection on a general theme that seems to have arisen in my mind in the past couple of weeks—-I have been reflecting on the strength of and challenges faced by American women.  A number of things have led me to reflect on this:  hearing Lilly Ledbetter give a talk on her remarkable courage in fighting for the equal pay she deserved from Goodyear, reading Mika Brzezinski’s book Knowing Your Value (perhaps a precursor to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which I have yet to read), seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant film “Gravity,” and reading about women astronauts.  What struck me as a common thread among these seemingly disparate women and fictitious versus non-fictitious settings was that these women were, in a sense, ordinary.  Now, before the reader begins to raise a fuss, let me define “ordinary” as I perceive it.  These women are not radical, radical feminists, man haters, overly politicized, child haters, or even, perhaps, willing to label themselves as feminists.  They have accomplished their goals by being who they are and facing the same challenges that women face across all socioeconomic statuses and value systems.  They were trying to find their own way to achieve their goals in a culture that did not necessarily support them.  But in doing so, they have as role models for all of us.

Take the example of Lilly Ledbetter.  Her graceful tenacity and belief in doing what was right—-fighting for equal pay—-is an inspiration to everyone, women AND men.  A working wife and mother who was tipped off anonymously by a colleague that she was making less than her male counterparts, she began a fight that lasted over many years in order to get what was her due.  She had to fight a corporation (Goodyear), and even a legal system that was supposed to support but then denied her case.  What struck me as central to Ledbetter’s fight was simply her desire to help her family and to retire comfortably, and to be treated fairly as a woman.  Certainly, Ledbetter was well aware of the challenges that women and minorities face (she hails from rural Alabama), and knows the data.  But her goals were both so personal yet universal, and for this reason, I find that she was truly a success and an inspiration.  President Obama did right by naming the fair pay act after her.

Mika Brzezinski represents another type of role model for women.  Highly educated, savvy, and moving in elite circles, she has faced a set of challenges that highly ambitious, career driven women often encounter from men and the norms of American corporate culture.  America.  But what is perhaps more extraordinary is Mika’s courage and willingness to share her own mistakes as a woman in navigating the workplace and trying to get ahead.  In Knowing Your Value, she reflects on these mistakes and discusses them with other women such as Suze Orman, Sheryl Sandberg, and Tina Brown as well as a few men like Donald Trump, and Donny Deutsch.  She shares her struggles as a working wife and mother, as a woman in the media for whom appearance is important, and as a journalist.  Brzezinski discusses gender differences and how they affect one’s negotiating style.  Also of note is her acknowledgment of the men that have helped her with her career, and the women who have not; this is often a very sensitive issue for career women, but again, Brzezinski launches into a discussion about the complexities of this. Despite her arguably elite position in society and career, she still faces the same dilemmas as any working wife and mother faces—-how to juggle it all and to get ahead in a man’s world. Again, this is another example of a woman touching on universals that affect women everywhere.

America has long held the top position in space exploration, and a number of women have been part of that.  One must, of course, praise the contributions of women astronauts from other countries, such as Russia/the former Soviet Union (who sent the first woman into space), South Korea, and France.  But the list of American women who have gone into outer space, often risking their lives, is extraordinary.  The loss of the pioneering Dr. Judith Resnik in the 1986 Challenger disaster was tragic, but this tragedy is tempered when one sees what a passion she had for both science and for her own womanhood (she let her abundant hair flow when she wasn’t wearing her helmet and proudly carried a picture of TV star Tom Selleck on board!)  Sally Ride, the first American woman in space was actively involved in her later years in encouraging women in the sciences and running science programs for young people while remaining quietly lesbian in her personal life.  Mae Jemison was another pioneer, as she was the first African-American woman in space.  She was also quite a pioneer, in that she was a female engineering student at Stanford University, and an African-American female engineering student at that. The multi-talented Jamison has also had a lifelong interest in dance, both in performing and choreographing it, as well as acting.  Most importantly, she is a humanitarian who became a doctor and served in the Peace Corps.  Who could be a better role model for young women and men?

As human beings, we must have concrete role models, but we also have an innate yearning for hero stories.  The film “Gravity” is one such example.  It taps into our primal need for a hero, and we are given one in Dr. Ryan Stone.  She is estranged from (presumably) her husband, her late daughter, and her fellow astronauts with whom she embarked on this space mission.  It is her intelligence and courage that sustain her as she is cut off from her spacecraft and the others, but in the end, it is her emotions that guide her to rekindle her desire to live, her heart that guides her to do what is right in choosing life over her brooding misery over her daughter’s death.  Dr. Stone meets one misfortune after the other throughout the course of the movie, and is determined to untangle herself from every difficult situation.  Cuaron’s choice of a female scientist as heroine is a very interesting and necessary one, especially in an age of trashy tramps and Miley Cyrus and Kardashian Kulture.  His rendering of a female character as a strong heroine, and yet also a woman, is shown beautifully as Dr. Stone’s lithe figure floats through the spacecraft—-a tribute to the female form.  Dr. Ryan Stone is that rare film character who is intelligent, strong, successful in a typically male field, maternal, and embracing of her femininity.

We still have a long way to go in American culture in allowing women to feel that they can be complete and multifaceted, that they can embrace traditional roles (such as motherhood and marriage), the miracles of their bodies, their intelligence, and their ambition.  Ladies, don’t give up!