Guest post by MJ Lisbeth
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s pioneering work will be long remembered. But the visual image of her that most of us have, and will retain, is of her diminutive frame draped in a robe d’avocat adorned with jabots chosen for agreements, dissents or other occasions of a jurist’s life.
Her sartorial choices, while distinctive, were also fitting (pardon the pun): They, like modern feminism, originated in France. So did the Enlightenment, which inspired notions of les droits l’homme et du citoyen—and, if indirectly, la laicite, the policy that, while not expressly prohibiting religious expression, has had the effect of eliminating public religious remarks by politicians and most other French public figures.
Justice Ginsburg never disavowed the Jewish faith in which she was raised. In fact, she sometimes cited Old Testament verses such as “Justice, justice shall you pursue” as guiding principles. She did not, however, try to shape the law or society in her, or anyone else’s, interpretation of a holy text. Rather, her faith seemed to be a fire within her that fueled her efforts at bringing about justice.
Another, perhaps more important, difference between the role religion plays in the words and actions of many American public figures and the role it played in Bader Ginsburg’s life is this: While public figures who are overtly Evangelical (and most other kinds of ) Christians are acting from privilege they don’t realize they have (in brief, entitlement), Ginsburg, as a daughter of people who fled pogroms only to face anti-Semitism in America, was acutely aware of her status as an underdog and outsider—yet did not share the “persecution complex” that afflicts too many who don’t realize their favored status.
Now I am going to share something I never would have understood had I not spent the first part of my life as male: It is too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that other people are being gifted with “special” privileges or treatment when they are simply getting the same rights everyone else has. I know I was guilty of it; perhaps I still am, sometimes. As a woman who attended an Ivy League school on full scholarship and graduated at the top of a law school in another Ivy League institution, Bader Ginsburg couldn’t help but to understand as much: Law firms wouldn’t hire her because she was a woman: A man “needed” the job more than she did.
One thing that makes Bader Ginsburg a hero is that she didn’t allow the intentional or unwitting sexists to destabilize her sense of herself. I have no doubt that any number of people tried to “gaslight” or sexually harass her. (About the latter, she mused, “What woman of my age hasn’t experienced it?”) I can’t get into her mind, but I don’t think I’m inaccurate in thinking that she understood that, ultimately, one cannot attain personhood, let alone equality, without a sense of one’s self, defined by one’s self and no one else.
That, as I understand it, is a core principle of the Enlightenment—and of the Founding Fathers of the United States, at least as they understood what it means to be a human being (i.e., white, male and a property owner). If you cannot define who you are, on your own terms, there is simply no way to have sovereignty over your mind or body. As someone who came to terms with childhood sexual abuse (by a priest) and sexual harassment and assault as an adult, at a late date in her life, this knowledge is now as vital to me as air, water and food.
In short, if you do not have the freedom to think and come to conclusions based on the evidence before you, and to say “No” when those rights are being denied to you, your mind and body are in someone else’s power. In other words, you are a slave. And when you are a slave, there is no justice.
So, whatever role her inherited faith played in her personal and professional life, her defense of rape victims, the right to an abortion and equal pay for equal work, and her fight against any and all forms of discrimination—and for the right to follow or reject her faith, or any other– are all part of a quest for justice. For that, I am grateful. And, I am sure, Theodore Herzl would approve just as much as Simone de Beauvoir or Voltaire would.
Unlike too many American legislators and public figures, she did not use her position to ram her religious beliefs down other people’s throats. Rather, her faith in the justice she pursued guided her work. For that, I am grateful.