Michelle Goldberg’s article about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Feminism’s Last Line of Defense,” makes the point that she’s the last (and sadly, probably will remain the only) Supreme Court justice who was famous for her feminist work and who was present at the creation of Second-Wave feminism’s important revisions of American law. (For more on Ginsburg, see this terrific interview with her in the New York Times last July. What a savvy politician, too–do you see how she makes the points she wants to make, no matter what questions she was actually asked?) Goldberg writes:
As co-director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in the 1970s, Ginsburg was a central figure in a string of cases in which various kinds of sex discrimination were ruled unconstitutional. She was famously clever in choosing cases in which discriminatory laws hurt men—one of her cases involved a widower father who couldn’t collect social security benefits available to widowed mothers, another challenged an Oklahoma law that let women buy low-alcohol beer at age 18, while men had to be 21. Presented with victimized men, justices had a way of suddenly comprehending the perniciousness of sexism. Her work resulted in many of the protections later generations of women would take for granted.
Indeed, that’s one reason we’re unlikely to see someone like her again. Ginsburg was seared by personal experiences of sexism, while her work has helped insure that later generations of women would be spared similar injustices. As one of nine women in her Harvard Law School class, she was asked by the dean how she could justify taking a place that would have gone to a man. Justice Felix Frankfurter refused to hire her as a clerk because of her gender. As a law professor in the early 60s, she hid her second pregnancy because she was afraid it might endanger her job.
Goldberg’s point about Ginsburg’s generational perspective is an important one, but I think she is a bit too much of a whig historian here when it comes to the slings and arrows of outrageous sex discrimination being a thing of the past. No, Harvard’s Law School dean probably won’t demand justification from women students for taking the place of men in their classes–but in part because of the heroic work by Ginsburg and her peers in desegregating professional schools, that’s not where the playing field for sex discrimination is any longer.
My radicalization–and that of my students, past, present, and future–came after college and professional education, when I first entered the job market. It was only in my late twenties and early thirties that I witnessed and experienced blatant discrimination on the job. Unfortunately, my guess is that the majority of women considered for appointments to the Federal Judiciary for the foreseeable future will have stories like Ginsburg’s to tell about their experiences in their 30s, 40s, and beyond, not about their time in law school or on the job market, but rather at the point when they have or adopt a child and find their careers mommy-tracked against their will, or at the moment they learn they won’t make partner, or that they won’t get that circuit court appointment because of that law review article they wrote that referenced approvingly something Catharine MacKinnon wrote. This is a point that Goldberg’s article makes even more explicitly–that engagement with feminist legal activism or scholarship is seen as much more controversial today:
Though Obama is in many ways more liberal than Clinton (ed. note: You wish!), it’s hard to imagine him nominating someone like Ginsburg. Unlike Sotomayor, who has no real paper trail on abortion or other contentious gender issues, Ginsburg had a long, public record as an advocate for sexual equality. It’s amazing to remember that in 1993, only three Republicans voted against her confirmation—as polarized as the Clinton years were, things are far worse today. A record as a feminist champion is far more likely to hinder than to help future Supreme Court candidates.
Right. . . we don’t need feminism any longer because everything is totally equal now (yay!), and yet somehow it’s divisive if we invoke feminism or engage in a feminist analysis of the present. How can something be both irrelevant and unnecessarily divisive? I suppose feminism will be seen that way unless and until it’s accepted as one of the great social justice movements of the modern era, instead of as a consumer item that falls in and out of fashion. As Echidne wrote last spring:
[N]o other social justice movement is EVER criticized for not being funny enough or sexy enough. No other social justice movement is EVER expected to sell itself in the way feminism is expected. It’s as if feminism is a new pair of shoes or something; an item women can easily do without, an item they might not be able to afford (because the societal costs of being a feminist can be considerable). So the movement must sell itself, I guess.
You know, the American Civil Rights movement of the 1940s-1970s didn’t have much of a sense of humor either, and a lot of people would say that the anti-Apartheid movement of the 1980s took itself a little too seriously as well. I personally have always thought Gay Rights activists threw the best demonstrations–now there’s a social movement that knows how to have fun!
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