Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows how feminism is done. Again.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Aug. 30 2010 6:59 PM

The Mother of All Grizzlies

Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows how feminism is done. Again.

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It was in Craig v. Boren that Ginsburg secured the court's agreement that—in her words—the "familiar stereotype: the active boy, aggressive and assertive; the passive girl, docile and submissive" was "not fit to be written into law." The seed for Sarah Palin was sown. And whether Palin wants women to be allowed to buy beer at 18, or 21, or not at all, the fact that the legal system doesn't care whether you're a woman or a man anymore changed her life. You can draw a straight line between Ginsburg's fight against these seemingly harmless gender classifications that were rooted in seemingly harmless gender stereotypes and the Mama Grizzlies who roam our political landscape today.

Those who like to believe they have picked themselves up by the bootstraps sometimes forget that they wouldn't even have boots were it not for the women who came before. Listening to Palin, it's almost impossible to believe that, as recently as 50 years ago, a woman at Harvard Law School could be asked by Dean Erwin Griswold to justify taking a spot that belonged to a man. In Ginsburg's lifetime, a woman could be denied a clerkship with Felix Frankfurter just because she was a woman. Only a few decades ago, Ginsburg had to hide her second pregnancy for fear of losing tenure. I don't have an easy answer to the question of whether real feminists are about prominent lipsticky displays of "girl-power," but I do know that Ginsburg's lifetime dedication to achieving quiet, dignified equality made such displays possible.

After she finished reading her husband's charmingly funny speech, and while folks in the audience were still wiping away tears, Ginsburg sat down for a "fireside chat" with the chief justice of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, NPR's Nina Totenberg, and Robert Henry, the president of Oklahoma City University. (The woman sitting next to me whispered that the setup looked an awful lot like The View.) In response to a question about work-life balance, Ginsburg explained that in the early '70s, her son, "what I called a lively child but school psychologists called hyperactive," was forever in trouble and that she was constantly called in to his school, even though she and her husband both had full-time jobs.

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"One day, I was particularly weary,"* she explained, and so when the school called, she said, "This child has two parents. I suggest you alternate calls, and it's his father's turn." She said calls from the school came much less frequently after that, because the school was "much less inclined to take a man away from his job." Ruth Bader Ginsburg doesn't growl and doesn't issue threats, and she rarely eats small forest dwellers. But she is still the mother of all grizzlies to me.

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Correction, Aug. 31, 2010: This article originally quoted Ginsburg as saying, "One day, I was particularly wary." (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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