Тhis year is already tumultuous and torturous. Our sense of stability is turned inside out and our assumptions about civil society, ethics in leadership, reliability of the news, our climate, our workplaces and our economy all challenged.
For those of you not familiar with her work and wondering about depth of this loss, I recommend the movie On The Basis Of Sex, a 2018 retelling of Bader Ginsburg’s most famous cases. As a young and talented lawyer, unable to find a job with a corporate law firm because of her sex, Bader Ginsburg was teaching. She stumbled on a case where a man, caring for his mother, was prevented from accessing tax benefits designed for women who were assumed to be carers. In fighting this battle, from the flipped position of a man’s rights, Bader Ginsburg successfully set a historic precedent that unequal treatment on the basis of sex was unlawful. This precedent has gone forth to change the lives of many men and women in the USA and contributed to LGBTQ+ rights. Ruth Bader Ginsburg changed the world. She was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by Bill Clinton, confirmed by 96 US Senators in historic bipartisan consensus.
A Lesson In Equality
Bader Ginsburg’s lesson from her first landmark case reverberates through four generations: inequality is bad for everyone, not just the powerless. When we decide that one category of human should have more power than another, we limit human potential and restrict our resources. It is demeaning, inefficient and wasteful. Bader Ginsburg’s work diligently laid bare the parts of a complex structural bias web that were seeded in our institutions, making it hard for half the population to contribute to the workplace and impossible for the other half to care for their family. We are still unpicking the long tail influence of structural biases. Recently I wrote about the current trend of lauding female leaders as “good in a crisis” and how unhelpful that narrative is, limiting the acknowledgement of empathetic, competent male leaders and the remit of women to clearing up, rather than ambition and growth. A colleague, Lesley Symons wrote her INSEAD MBA dissertation on Business School case studies, observing that women leaders made up only 11 protagonists. Bader Ginsburg was once asked how many female Supreme Court Justices would be “enough” on the court of nine. “Nine,” she replied. Well why not? No one thought it was odd when there were nine men. Competence and talent should be the defining characteristic of appointment, not subcategory of human.
Competence is not gendered, expectations are. There is no reliable evidence to support male and female differences in math, empathy, leadership, decision-making, efficiency, listening skills, fine motor control or any other skill. Any marginal differences in mean scores are over played in studies with large samples that amplify statistical significance despite minimal effect sizes. And as Professor Gina Rippon so eloquently describes in her book, “The Gendered Brain”, looking for these differences in brains that have a lifetime of different experiences is simply reinforcing the internalized bias in a veneer of objectivity.
A Lesson In Social Change
Bader Ginsburg’s legacy of social change is in the detail. In everyday, small actions that add up to large effects. Bader Ginsburg teaches us to apply critical reasoning and challenge to implicit bias, she knew the power of systemic levers, how cultural inequality hinges on nodes of normality. Like an archaeologist, she set her powerful mind to careful, quiet, diligent scraping back of historical assumptions until the flaws in discrimination of all kinds were exposed. We may still be fighting those battles in many arenas, but no one can say that they didn’t realize the flaws were there. There are still many who think we should revert to a world where a woman cannot own a bank account without her husband’s permission (changed in 1974 in the USA) but we can no longer hide those inequities in historical precedent. It’s harder to persuade people to step backwards because generally, more humans prefer fairness than inequality. In the reveal, we win the case. 75% of Americans support abortion rights, higher than in 1973 when it was made legal. More people support Black Lives Matter than approved of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. Progress may take two steps forward and one step back, but the trendline is consistent. We must rely on historical education, long memories of the pain and suffering caused by institutional sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia. I am mourning the loss of Supreme Justice Bader Ginsburg today but I did not expect her to do all the work. There will always be more principled humans diligently working for a better world who will pick up the mantle and continue the irrepressible march of progress, for example like Kimberlé Crenshaw, the lawyer who uncovered Intersectionality Theory.
I once asked my son, then aged 11, if he would prefer a mom who worked locally and was always there after school. I was tired and exhausted after a long week of work during a very difficult phase of my company’s growth. He gave me a smile and replied “no mom, your work is really important, you’re helping so many people.” My business is female and disability owned and led. My husband does the laundry and I have no idea where the iron is or how it works. I feel privileged to experience these things as normal and I know that I will not be alone in the fight to maintain equal rights. I’ve read a lot recently about my generation, Gen X, raised by boomers who won equal rights to independence but couldn’t avoid abusive marriages or limited opportunities. As we grew up, we watched internalized sexism and bigotry continue to affect society despite new laws. Yet we made choices that our parents couldn’t conceptualize because our normal was one step ahead. As a result, my generation’s divorce rates are improved, our acceptance of rape culture is lower, we’ve raised boys who expect to have clean up duties. As we continue to chip away at historical legacies in the style that Ruth Bader Ginsburg epitomized, we are creating a new normal that will change our children’s possibilities.
In a year where we have lost so many icons of the 1960’s and 1970’s civil right movements, including John Lewis and Elijah Cummings, it is time for Gen X, Millenials and Gen Z to galvanize. Bader Ginsburg once said "I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability," a phrase that continues to fuel my passion for employment inclusion. Our heroes fought to change the level of thinking from which the problem was created, it’s our turn to be striving for the solution. From a period of mourning and depression will emerge resolve and inspiration, as it has always been through the history of our species.
Justice Ginsburg reported enjoying writing dissenting opinions, even when key cases at the Supreme Court ruled against her opinion. She hoped they would influence future courts, and future cases. She said "I will not live to see what becomes of my dissents. I remain hopeful."
I will continue to dissent from oppression, inequity, fear. So will you.