Culture

Dear Edith: Is It Okay to Admire Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

December 19, 2018

Dear Edith,

I find Ruth Bader Ginsburg's story as a lawyer seeking women's rights to be extremely compelling, dare I say even inspiring. I also disagree with her position on abortion issues and contraception.

Yet, I often receive flack from Catholics (men and women) who claim that you can't separate out the two "lives" that she has had. In effect, they seem to suggest that I cannot just say, "I admire and respect the work that RBG did for women's legal rights in her early years as a lawyer fighting discrimination." Even when I bring up her friendship with Justice Scalia, a Catholic Supreme Court Justice, I am still discouraged from praising her too loudly.

Do you have any advice about how to commend that work that she did without sounding like you are pro-choice?

Rachel

Rachel lives and works in both Baltimore and Dallas. She is a PhD student in art history. Find Rachel on Instagram or on her blog, The Itinerant Wife.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Response #1 - Michelle

Dear Rachel,

Reading your submission on Ruth Bader Ginsburg struck a chord within me, as it was a question I too had been struggling with. As a recent law school graduate and new lawyer, I spent the last three years surrounded by women (and men) who praised “The Notorious RBG.” The message which resonated was the following: to be a feminist lawyer, you have to wholeheartedly endorse RBG’s ideologies, including abortion and contraception.

There is plenty to be admired about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She attended both Harvard Law and Columbia Law.  When her husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer, she attended classes for both of them, all while raising her infant daughter.  She ended up graduating from Columbia Law first in her class, only to be refused a job at every turn. She was even, ironically, denied a Supreme Court clerkship for which she was preeminently qualified. Her dedication to gender equality in the workplace and in education was tremendous and opened doors previously closed to women. And to top it all off, she was married to her husband for 56 years.

As Sue Ellen Browder points out in Subverted, the feminist movement and abortion became mysteriously intertwined in the 1960s. And to many, they have been inseparable since. Ruth Bader Ginsburg espouses this belief; but it is possible to admire her while disagreeing, even vehemently, with her beliefs.  

The temptation in our modern culture is to view people as solely their ideologies. Many people wear them proudly and often succumb to the false belief that they are their ideologies. But, as we know, we are all sons and daughters of God, born with inherent dignity and who are made for eternal salvation. Dignity is permanent, while ideologies are fleeting.

As I see dialogue around these issues today, the pro-life and pro-choice movements are two banks of an ideological river. Each of us stands on our own side, digging our heels in and insisting that we espouse the true belief. But rivers have bridges for a reason, and those secure in their beliefs should not be afraid to venture to the other side.

Sincerely,

Michelle

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Response #2 - Charlene

Dear Rachel,

This is a difficult question for pro-life feminists.

As much as we pursue common ground with pro-choice friends and seek ways to collaborate toward good ends - namely, life for unborn children, often achieved through empowering mothers and stabilizing families - does it diminish our pro-life advocacy when we express admiration for a person who is candidly pro-choice?

The roots of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's pro-choice beliefs can be traced through her early family, academic, and professional experiences.

Her mother was an incredibly bright student but couldn't pursue academics beyond high school, and instead worked in the garment district to send her brother to college. Ginsburg married her college sweetheart one month after graduating from Cornell, followed her husband's job to Oklahoma, and was demoted in her first job at the Social Security Administration as soon as they learned she was pregnant. (She hid her second pregnancy many years later to avoid the same fate.) Ginsburg then attended classes at Harvard as a new mother and typed notes for both herself and her husband, who was fighting cancer in his final year of law school. Graduating first in her class with exemplary recommendations from her professors, as well as the unique prestige of having served on editorial boards for both the Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review, Ginsburg couldn't get a job because judges didn't want female law clerks. Once established as a professor at Rutgers, administrators paid her a lower salary than her male colleagues, expressly because her husband had a good job elsewhere.

Ginsburg . . . was demoted in her first job at the Social Security Administration as soon as they learned she was pregnant.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's early life reads like a textbook of prejudice against women - in education, employment, advancement, legislation, and wages - and having a child only complicates things more.

As Ginsburg herself said, "In the fifties, the traditional law firms were just beginning to turn around on hiring Jews. But to be a woman, a Jew, and a mother to boot - that combination was a bit too much."

Contemporary pro-life feminists advocate for the system to change and accommodate motherhood as an integral part of womanhood, with a place for mothers in every sector of society (as a place for fathers is granted without question).

Pro-choice feminists - especially those with personal discrimination experiences like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had no legal recourse for equality - might see that kind of comprehensive system change as an ideological pipe dream. Instead, they might assume that women need to biologically change to function more like men (avoiding surprise pregnancies and having meticulously-planned children), continuing a male-centric system at the expense of our own bodies.

So, yes, Justice Ginsburg is pro-choice (a position that I believe she comes by honestly with good intentions) and I disagree with her. From my perspective, ending a child's life in utero perpetuates injustice against an innocent person instead of seeking equal rights for everyone involved (including the unborn child), and even more so if the decision is made under the duress of discriminatory circumstances such as an inability for a mother to finish her education, keep her job, support her children, or access healthcare.

At the same time, before writing off Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a worthy role model, we should consider her judicial legacy.

In 1972, Ginsburg prepared a brief for the Supreme Court, ready to defend a pregnant Air Force woman's right to birth her baby, place the child up for adoption, and keep her job. At that time, a pregnant soldier could either get an abortion or be forced to leave the military. A pregnant woman in the private sector could lose her job without recourse. Ginsburg worked to change this, and as a result, the Air Force changed its policy, allowing the soldier to both have her baby and remain in the military.

In 1972, Ginsburg prepared a brief for the Supreme Court, ready to defend a pregnant Air Force woman's right to birth her baby . . . and keep her job.

Justice Ginsburg's dear friend and colleague, conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, praised her as "the leading (and very successful) litigator on behalf of women's rights - the Thurgood Marshall of that cause, so to speak." Yet her advocacy was not limited to just women.

Ginsburg has defended women's rights to have babies (Struck v. Secretary of Defense), men's rights as husbands (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld) and caregivers (Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue), the rights of those with disabilities (Olmstead v. L.C.), equal military spousal support for military husbands (Frontiero v. Richardson), and equal pay for women (Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.), among countless other cases.

Regarding equal pay for women, Lilly Ledbetter's Supreme Court discrimination case ruled in favor of her employer on a technicality. Yes, Goodyear had paid Ledbetter's male colleagues up to 40% higher wages for decades, but the 180-day statute of limitations to file a claim expired before Ledbetter was aware of the pay discrimination, so she lost the case. In response, Justice Ginsburg's dissent from the bench appealed to Congress, requesting legislation to correct this injustice for future plaintiffs. As a result, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act closed the statute of limitations loophole for employers and was signed into law in 2009.

Surprisingly, Justice Ginsburg has been criticized for her lack of support for Roe v. Wade. She felt it was doctor-centered instead of women-centered. Furthermore, she believes that abortion law should be legislated at the state level, not declared unilaterally from the bench. (As opposed to pro-life advocates who also want to return abortion legislation to the states by overturning Roe v. Wade, Ginsburg believes state legislation will strengthen pro-choice positions.)

In defiance of a 1974 Supreme Court ruling that discrimination against a pregnant woman was not a form of sex discrimination because a woman could choose whether to become pregnant, Ginsburg helped draft the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which required pregnancy to be treated like any other short-term disability. Prior to this legislation, an employer could demote or fire a woman simply for becoming pregnant, consequences that Ruth Bader Ginsburg experienced personally in her own pregnancies. (And as any pro-life advocate recognizes, the last thing a pregnant woman needs is to lose a source of income and health insurance.)

Ginsburg helped draft the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. . . Prior to this legislation, an employer could demote or fire a woman simply for becoming pregnant, consequences that Ruth Bader Ginsburg experienced personally

While pregnancy discrimination continues today, as in the case of Walmart restricting pregnant women from applying for its established light-duty work program, women now have recourse to keep their jobs and receive back pay through the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

To be clear, Justice Ginsburg's official position is not pro-life. And yet, a closer review of her work reveals pro-life fruit with which we can ally. Thanks to Ginsburg's ability to turn her own experiences of discrimination as a woman and mother into a lifelong mission toward equality for others, we now live in a world that better protects the rights and opportunities of mothers and fathers alike to have and raise children in America.

In conclusion, yes, we can absolutely disagree with Ruth Bader Ginsburg's pro-choice position, but writing her off entirely is reductive and overlooks the legitimate pro-life benefits her legal and judicial career have accomplished through protections for mothers to keep and provide for their babies.

As pro-life Catholic feminists, we ought to find common ground anywhere we can and work toward common goals with anyone who will collaborate with us. The “Notorious RBG” is no exception.

I wonder if we can see a bit of ourselves in her story: continuing daily to make the world a better place for women and mothers, particularly in response to whatever adversity we have personally experienced.

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