Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a badass. Dahlia Lithwick, in Slate, tells us how she got that way and whether she’s happy being called that, and whether it’s OK for people who support the ascendency of women to use terms like that to describe a longtime feminist. It’s a great article, and you should read it, especially if you think Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a badass. Or notorious. As I do. Apparently, Notorious RBG loves it.
RBG is a tiny lady, and Lithwick writes about the moment—so far as we can tell—at which RBG changed from being a tiny lady to being a badass. Lithwick points to the retirement of Sandra Day O’Conner, leaving RBG as the only woman on the Court. This was followed by a series of rightward-leaning judgments from the Court. Then, in 2007, in the so-called “partial birth abortion case,” RBG chose to read her dissent aloud from the bench. When she found that issues that she had fought hard for for decades were in jeopardy, her style changed and she became combative. Sometimes she was in the majority, but many times not. Apparently, what happened to her is that, since most of the time she could not create a majority, she must have decided she could start speaking to the country over the heads of her male colleagues, and she could speak to future law students and judges in her own voice. In a list of cases, she wrote dissents which are now as important as the majority opinions. She became “Notorious RBG.” She had become a fighter.
Part of it was that she saw the issues she cared about going in what she must have thought was the wrong direction. The other part of it was that she was frustrated by the obtuseness and stubbornness of her opponents on the Court. She considered her abilities. Is is as if she said to herself, “I am here on this Court where I am regularly silenced. To make my voice heard, I must speak up.” And speaking up for her interpretation of the law, even in the face of the stubbornness of her colleagues, transformed her into a fighter.
A similar thing happened at Stonewall. When the cops raided the tavern for the second time in a week, the customers concluded that they couldn’t fight them in a pitched battle. But what they could do was fight a guerrilla war. They used the weapons they had to defeat the cops, and they succeeded. The “zap” became famous—and powerful, used to great effect against Mayor John Lindsay and both the American Psychiatric Association and also the American Psychological Assiation. A similar thing happened in my life. I realized that straight culture had all the power necessary—the churches, government, social disapproval, or mere laziness, among others—to exclude gay people. But I could say no. I could accept exclusion from the world of straight people, and then I could refuse to allow it to reach me. But I am still gay. Many people nearest to me wept bitter tears and and others were angry as hell. And in effect I said, you can weep your tears and raise your voice in anger, but I am still gay. I didn’t know how powerful a weapon that was.
So, now, we are celebrating the achievements of the tiny lady fighting her huge fights against those ugly men and doing it with humor, intelligence, and style. She understood that being polite sometimes meant giving in, so in her dissents she declined to give in, which meant that some people stopped thinking she was being polite. She’s a model to all of us, and she gives us a way to understand our past. There’s a part of me that I can’t ever give away, or give up, or submit to what you want. And at moments like these, I have to consider my options. What weapons do I have? How can I protect myself? I will not be changed by you, ever. When I feel most threatened nowadays, I know that it is good that RBG has my back. I am so grateful that this tiny lady is willing to fight on our side.