Thoughts by Richard Bleil
The more I learn about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the more impressed I am. This post is not really to sing her praises or report her accomplishments. Indeed, I’m writing it because yesterday I saw RGB on one of my streaming services. As I watched it, I was very impressed by her style, philosophy of life, and approach to conflicts, a style that I wish more politicians would study.
In the documentary, one of the comments she made she attributed to her mother, saying that (and I’m paraphrasing here) she never responds in anger because that pushes people away rather than bringing them to your table. She was an excessively powerful person, and yet described as shy, quiet and withdrawn. There’s an old saying that “still waters run the deepest”, and that was her. She made incredible advances in the area of gender equality but did so in a strikingly unique manner. She used the tools and talents with which she was best skilled, namely, in her legal profession.
Early on, she elected to take cases of gender discrimination. She argued, before and all white male (and probably Christian) Supreme Court that gender discrimination was not only real, but that it placed women in a second-class position in our society that hurt everybody. As a practicing attorney, she took seven cases before the Supreme Court, winning six of them, including the very first case involving a woman in the Air Force who was married but not receiving the additional family pay afforded to the men for their wives to maintain the household. She won the case, but only four of the nine justices, less than half, agreed that there is a gender bias in the society. She responded that she didn’t expect to get the agreement on existing societal gender bias but told them (in her first case) that she’ll be back two, three, maybe half a dozen more times. She returned six times.
This was the ‘60’s. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was organizing marches and protests in their highly charged fight for women’s equality. At the time, women could not get credit cards or loans without their husband’s signature, could be fired for being pregnant and in many states could not be raped by their husbands. I myself was a toddler, so I was unaware of just how barbaric our society was. RBG did not march, and those who knew her said it simply wasn’t in her nature. Yet her fight behind the scenes was a fierce and silent storm.
The Iching is an ancient Taoist book, called the “Book of Life”. It contains snippets of wisdom written in passages, such as the one entitled “the Sun”. This is my favorite passage, which describes the paths of change. It says that the most lasting changes are those made by constant application of a gentle force, but it must always be in the same direction. Changes made in this manner are not as noticeable as the violence that gives rise to the mountains but is more permanent as the force of the wind that wears the mountains down. As I think about RBG’s role in the ‘60’s, the marching and protests were the violence, but largely it was a manner in which stress could be relieved. RBG’s force was the wind, something that many people don’t even notice, and yet it always blew towards equality of gender and race. The changes that resulted from her efforts, as a writer in the Harvard Review as she was a student, as a practicing attorney, and for her work as a judge up to and including on the Supreme Court, are what gives women the rights to be citizens today.
But it’s more than just the consistent direction of her efforts (many of which are being actively unraveled today). She was also a brilliant tactician and political force. In her first case, she won recognition that gender bias existed by getting household benefits for women in the air force. In her second case to go before the Supreme Court, she represented a man who had lost his wife, and was raising two children as a single widower. Social Security would pay women a survivor’s benefit in such a case, but because he was a man, he was being denied the same benefit. She won this case as well, but in doing so she demonstrated the double-edged nature of gender bias proving that men, too, suffered from gender biased laws.
And the entire time, she never raised her voice. She simply invited people of power to her table. What would Congress look like today if more of those in Congress worked in this manner?