From the Saturday Night Live impressions of her workout regimes to candles in Urban Outfitters displaying her face, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been pop culture’s feminist icon for the past few decades.
She’s famous for being the second woman to serve as a justice on the United States Supreme Court, for advancing women’s abortion rights in the seminal Roe v. Wade case, and for fighting gender-based discrimation on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s.
However, when her passing made national news in September, many began to reflect on her legacy and even turn a critical eye to it. The timing of her death also marked the opening of a spot on the United States Supreme Court, and as a result, there has been a mixture of emotions from the left side of the political spectrum.
Some have struggled to balance honouring her with granting room for critique, while others have expressed bewilderment that she did not step down during the Barack Obama administration to ensure that her seat would be filled by a liberal judge.
Others have criticized Bader Ginsburg for white feminism: a form of championing women’s rights that centres white women’s experiences. This criticism points to her belief in the ‘anti-classification’ theory — which states that men and women shouldn’t be differentiated — even when it came to affirmative action or other preferential policies. Some critics compare this belief to ‘colour-blindnes’ because it only benefitted women whose sole form of oppression was gender-based discrimination.
That critical understanding of Bader Ginsburg raises certain questions: how should we evaluate people of historical importance? Can we divorce personhood from contributions to society? Should we evaluate people by the standards of their own times or in the context of current times?
The 2018 documentary RBG, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, suggests that the answer to the second question is no — we cannot divorce the person from their contributions. Through the film, the viewer comes to understand how Bader Ginsburg’s character allowed her to become the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court.
At the start of the film, Bader Ginsburg describes her upbringing and the way that her mother always told her to first “be a lady” and second “be independent.” Bader Ginsburg said that to “be a lady,” she must not allow “useless emotions to overcome” her actions, and to “be independent” meant to never be entirely reliant upon a man.
It is clear that this philosophy emerged in her work. After all, the political landscape that Bader Ginsburg created by adjudicating a variety of high-profile cases was dependent on her persona as an incredibly hard worker — a persona that departed from traditional understandings of women as stay-at-home wives and mothers.
While RBG draws attention to Bader Ginsburg’s professional accomplishments, it also emphasizes her role as a daughter, a mother, and then a grandmother by highlighting the work of many women that is taken for granted.
The documentary shows how Bader Ginsburg’s mother had raised her, and how Bader Ginsburg herself went on to raise her child while she was enrolled in law school and her husband, Martin Ginsburg, was battling cancer. She would study for her own classes and then organize her husband’s friends to take notes so she could copy them down for him. On most days, she was running on two hours of sleep.
The documentary also highlighted how the roles between her and her husband reversed as her career took off, and Martin took over the role of caretaker — cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids, and coaxing her to leave her desk and come home.
However, if we look at her life in the larger context of feminism, her work did not fully address the intersections of oppression that racialized women face. She left a legal legacy with complicated impacts. In certain cases, she did not fight for the rights of Indigenous peoples, ruling in one case that the repurchase of Indigenous land 200 years later did not restore sovereignty.
However, Bader Ginsburg has also been consistently progressive for her time and even now. Her focus was primarily on gender equality, as her landmark cases successfully argued that the equal protection clause in the 14th amendment of the United States’ Constitution did not permit gender-based discrimination. This means that if men and women have equal protection, then men cannot be privileged over women. In 1973, during her time as director of the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, she fought against a forced sterilization program that targeted people with mental disabilities and disproportionately affected Black women of lower socioeconomic standing.
Her complicated legacy is still wrangled with today. Imani Gandy, the co-host of the Boom! Lawyered podcast and the senior editor for law and policy at Rewire News Group, told The New York Times that “As a Black person, I definitely would have liked to see her be more forward thinking on racial justice issues over the past few years, but denigrating her as an out-of-touch white feminist is a real disservice.”
To Aminatou Sow, author and a co-host of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, younger generations get to undermine Bader Ginsburg’s record as not being intersectional or radical enough because Bader Ginsburg created an environment in the United States that allows them to hold this opinion. “She seems like this older relic,” Sow told The New York Times. “But the point of being a trailblazer is she gets to age into a world where people my age don’t have to remember how hard it was.”
In my own personal life, I find myself struggling to evaluate the contributions and significance of previous generations while contextualizing that within my own times. When my grandparents say things to me that I feel reflect regressive gender norms, my parents remind me that at one point they were the trailblazers.
Generations ago, women had to adapt differently in order to break certain glass ceilings. This can be seen in how Bader Ginsburg believed that a lady must not allow “useless emotions to overcome” her actions. The idea of masking emotions as a woman represents a generation of women who, in order to advance in a more patriarchal society, had to act like men.
Emotionality was equated with femininity, which was equated with weakness. This example of misogyny, both internal and external, has seen a current reckoning, but remains evident in how Bader Ginsburg chose to conduct herself.
I still believe that as the current generation of youth, it is important that we look back and be grateful for where we are now due to our predecessors’ dedication and actions. But this does not mean that we should not continue to push for more progressive beliefs — even from older generations.
When understanding Bader Ginsburg and her work, then, we should look at her holistically and understand the context of the times she lived in. Her record was not without blemishes, but throughout her life and beyond, she remained a pioneer in her field, and can and should be admired for her work.
As she once said herself, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”