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RBG: A Feminist Even My Mother-in-Law Likes

Vivia Chen

September 22, 2020

1280px-2018_Women's_March_in_Missoula _Montana_69Every prominent woman in America, it seems, has a story to tell about the time she met Ruth Bader Ginsburg and how transformative that encounter was. I met Ginsburg before she was elevated to the high court in the early 1990s, long before she morphed into the Notorious RBG. And if truth be told, she barely registered on my radar.

It wasn’t her fault. It was my failure to see beyond her reserve. And it had everything to do with my preconceptions of what a powerful woman should look and act like.

At the time, I worked at New York University School of Law as the editor of the alumni magazine. One day, John Sexton, then the dean of the law school, called me into his office about an “embarrassing” situation that needed fixing. As Sexton relayed it, this D.C. Court of Appeals judge—a big deal in women’s rights—was scheduled to give a speech in 10 minutes. The problem was that there were only three students in the audience. My mandate: Gather more bodies. Quick.

I scared up maybe two or three additional lost law students. So there we were, a half dozen young women sitting at the feet of RBG in cavernous Greenberg Lounge. As instructed, I told Ginsburg we decided to limit the audience and make it an “intimate” conversation.

I don’t know if she caught on, but Ginsburg played along. I wish I could remember exactly what she said, but I was distracted and wanted to get back to my work. She spoke in her deliberate voice, and she was extraordinarily patient, listening to students’ queries about her career path. Did she wow me? No. I thought she was rather mousy.

Naturally, I regret that I didn’t ask her more probing questions. (I’m not sure I asked any, in fact.) Over the years, I’ve asked myself why I didn’t listen more carefully to what she had to say, why I didn’t detect the sparkling gem beneath the quiet facade.

As I said, I was busy and distracted. But the other reason, I think, had to do with her style. Ginsburg was unlike most of the big wheels I was used to dealing with at the time or since. Soft-spoken, almost gentle, she was different from many of the muckety-mucks (male and female) who came to the law school expecting adulation. Though her accomplishments towered all others, Ginsburg wore them lightly. Maybe too lightly.

Ginsburg was almost an anachronism in her reserve. Prim, almost schoolmarmish, she didn’t exude the fire of Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan, whom I regarded as icons of modern feminism. Next to them, she’d be cast as the class nerd. (Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick calls her “a dork’s dork.”)

I now see Ginsburg as a woman way ahead of her time, yet still very much part of her generation. She basically suffered quietly when she graduated at the top of her class from both Cornell University (valedictorian) and Columbia Law School (tied for first place, class of 1959). It’s now legendary that both she and Sandra Day O’Connor had a hellish time getting a legal job, despite their stellar academic records. Yet neither complained at the time (it wouldn’t have done any good). They did what ambitious women did back then: put up with nonsense and persevere. Most of us can’t relate to that now, but our mothers and grandmothers can.

She was fierce but unfailingly polite. And that’s what makes Ginsburg’s type of feminism palatable to even women who don’t care to be called feminists. Though Ginsburg didn’t stay quiet about gender injustice for long—she was the director of the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and argued six landmark gender equality cases before the Supreme Court—she did it in a way that was different (or was perceived differently) from the stereotypical haranguing feminist. I hate to use the word “ladylike” but somehow that archaic term comes to mind.

I don’t know if Ginsburg’s decorous style of feminism will survive beyond her—or should. It’s 2020 and, for better or worse, most of us don’t have her patience and equanimity.

That said, let’s remember this advice she gave young women: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

In other words, decency, civility and niceness should never go out of style—something to keep in mind as we enter what promises to be a most indecent, uncivil and nasty fight for her seat.

vchen@alm.com

Twitter: @lawcareerist

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Exactly, Vivia. A great story and the right point. Civility prevails. When I was a 1L at Harvard Law School, 1971-72, Title IX had just come into force, and HLS was keen to find women for the faculty. They invited RBG from Rutgers to come for a visiting professorship for a semester--the usual try-out method. The report that reached us 1Ls was that the Hiring Committee had attended her class and given her a thumbs down. The reason? "Not scintillating." True, how true. But she did not need to be scintillating to change the world, did she?

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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