By Betsy Davis Stone, Health Law Fellow at KEJC
I have an RBG pin fastened to my winter coat, and my favorite t-shirt says, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” At my recent baby shower, a friend gave me a newborn onesie with “I dissent” emblazoned below an image of a frowning RBG. It’s obviously no secret that I deeply admire the late great Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but what self-respecting female civil rights attorney doesn’t love RBG? She’s a legend, and she’s become a feminist icon for all kinds of men and women.
Along with millions of other Americans, her recent death has me reflecting on what made her so great. I’ve seen a lot of people post compelling quotes from her over the last few days, but I keep coming back to a quote from someone else – specifically Dean Erwin Griswold. At a dinner party, the Harvard Law School Dean asked the nine female students in Justice Ginsburg’s law school class to report why they were occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man.
In an interview earlier this year with Slate, Justice Ginsburg recalled that when it was her turn to answer, she knocked an ash tray onto the floor and mumbled something about how her husband was a second-year student at Harvard and she wanted to understand his work. According to Ginsburg, “it was really one of those moments, when you wish you could have a trapdoor to fall through.”
For an outspoken icon who’s earned herself the nickname the “Notorious RBG,” it’s a particularly humanizing story. And nearly seventy years later, many women can still relate to that trapdoor moment Justice Ginsburg experienced in 1956.
During my time as legal aid attorney in my mid- to late-twenties, I could have filled a scrapbook with all of my trapdoor, God-please-let-me-disappear-into-the-floor moments. There was the judge who said loudly in open court that I really should smile more after he ruled against me. The older male attorney who insisted on calling me Becky instead of Betsy after multiple corrections. The host of male attorneys who will always assume your male co-counsel is in charge and direct all communications accordingly. The court security officers who let every man in a suit jump the security line assuming that they must be an attorney, but when you show up in a suit and say you’re an attorney, they ask to see your bar card, want to know why you need such a big purse (also known as a briefcase), and rifle through all your feminine hygiene products and every other pocket in said briefcase before letting you through. Not to mention the never-ending flood of questions from male colleagues about how you decided to dress that morning. Why heels? Why not heels? Why that suit/shirt/skirt/pants/dress? Why pants and not a skirt? Why a skirt and not pants? Why makeup? Why no makeup? Why wear your hair natural? Why straighten it? And my personal favorites – why do you look so tired? So angry?
“I don’t know,” I want to say, “maybe it’s because the judge just ignored the law and asked me to smile about it, or maybe because I’ve already explained every article of clothing I have on, or maybe I’m just really damn tired of justifying the space I’m occupying and what that space looks like.”
But instead I usually pull a Ginsburg circa 1956. I smile through gritted teeth. I mutter something unassuming. And I move on to what I came there for – not to defend myself, not to justify the space I’m taking up, but to do my work, to advocate for my clients.
Justice Ginsburg taught me that. I think she taught a lot of us that.
No one remembers that she failed to defend herself at what sounds like a lame dinner party in 1956. Instead, we remember that she finished law school and got to work defending the rights of other women. She pushed for their acceptance as equals in male-dominated spaces. She challenged white, cisgender, male judges to imagine the world they wanted their daughters and granddaughters to occupy, instead of fixating on the exclusive spaces they felt like they were losing. In promoting women’s rights, she actually made our nation a fairer place to live for men and women. And she persisted in that work and her commitment to equality as she rose through the ranks of the judiciary.
I’m not endorsing the grin-and-bear-it approach. I don’t think Justice Ginsburg would either. White, cisgender, male-dominated spaces need to change, and that change will require some of us (probably a lot of us) to speak up.
But Justice Ginsburg’s legacy challenges me to remember this: You should never be asked to justify the space you’re taking up. But don’t beat yourself up if you fail to answer with the perfect witty/confident/cutting remark. You never owed them an explanation in the first place.
Keep showing up. Keep speaking up. Keep challenging the status quo. Keep doing the work. Keep pounding the table for justice. Keep widening the space for others.
Hopefully someday you’ll look around to find that the space you worked to change does in fact look different. Remember that one day, Ruth Bader Ginsburg showed up for court, and there were two women on the U.S. Supreme Court. Let’s all keep showing up until there are nine.