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Representation at the 'Top' (Part 1): Discussing RBG's Legacy

Written by: Simren Sekhon & Abigail Goh



During a press conference at the White House in 1993, it was announced that Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) was nominated into the Supreme Court in which she gave tribute to her mother, saying:

"My mother was the bravest, strongest person I have ever known…I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons."

Women Unbounded wants to continue the sentiment of acknowledging past feminist movements & female trailblazers, paving the way to empower our generation today. In doing so, we have been reflecting on the legacy that RBG left behind on September 18, 2020 in relation to questions around the representation of women in positions of power.

Specifically, how can we as intersectional feminists digest the media portrayal of RBG and differentiate the cultural-icon/meme from the the advocate/person/litigator? We use RBG’s legacy as a lens for us to reflect on powerful women (at the ‘top’), account for progress and look forward to build-upon feminist work.

We not only want to celebrate RBG’s work, but also critically dismantle how intersectionality comes into play in ensuring progress for all.

RBG’s list of accomplishments is great and long – a legacy that we are increasingly in awe of amidst widespread celebrations of her life. Although the intention of this piece is not to list all of her accomplishments, we do want to celebrate just how distinct and ‘legendary’ her work and person was. In her early life, RBG overcame struggles of sexism and anti-Semitism as the first Jewish person/woman to serve on the court:

‘I struck out on three grounds,” Ginsburg said. “I was Jewish, a woman and a mother. The first raised one eyebrow; the second, two; the third made me indubitably inadmissible.’

Long before she became a ‘pop-culture icon’ or crowned at the ‘notorious RBG’, she worked hard to become top of her class at Columbia Law School and then began litigating sex-discrimination cases (under the American Civil Liberties Union/ACLU). Although she faced criticism, convincing the Court that gender discrimination violates the US Constitution (i.e. The Equal Rights Amendment) has arguably made RBG the most important feminist American lawyer. Moreover, RBG has made key steps in advancing the rights of marginalised groups:

RBG’s death amidst the context of the 2020 US Elections, has then timely propelled critical interrogation into her image and legacy beyond a heavily-polarised icon of pop culture. Media and 'memefication' often portrays RBG fighting alongside superheroes like the Avengers – meaning that people were able to focus on the most easily consumable version of their heroine. In other words, the “pop cult of RBG emphasised style and cheery affirmation in a way that left little room for a more searching examination of her record”.

The concern here is that fandom is more about enthusiasm than introspection.

In this discussion, we seek to interrogate the values we assume are upheld by those we idolise to represent the rights and progress of us all.

Rosenberg argues that turning public servants into cultural phenomena “inverts the proper relationship between citizens and the officials who are supposed to work for them”. This is particularly critical for Justices – who are appointed for life and so, are far less likely to be held accountable for actions voters dislike in elected officials, for example. The reality is that Justice Ginsburg had tremendous power to shape the law and her cultural standing realistically meant she faced little accountability: a combination that should not mean a discarding of her legacy but should demand far more scrutiny than it has thus far.

The suggestion here is that true fans of RBG would do her better justice by ditching the memes that social media incessantly places within view. Rather, we need to truly engage with the hard work represented by her infamous black robe and collar. And in doing so, thoughtfully configure what sort of feminism we want to live on beyond her death, and what we can learn to do better for future generations than she may have done.

Significantly, her legacy on issues like racial justice and tribal sovereignty are not critically discussed in mainstream discourse. Take into account, for example, that throughout the time of her career, in over 27 years as a justice, Ginsburg had hired only 1 Black clerk amongst >100 clerks she had. This was a trend that was true before she was confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1993 and when brought to her attention, she simply stated that she would “try harder” to hire Black staff, a commitment that minimally came to fruition. It appears that at the least, she seemed “obtuse to the consequences of nondiscriminatory merit-based selection”.

Of greater concern is her comment in a 2009 New York Times Interview. When asked about Medicaid funding of abortion, she addressed her concerns “about population growth and particularly growth in populations we don’t want to have too many of”. As we critically look at the representation RBG enabled, we must also ask ourselves:

What does this mean exactly? What populations did she not want to have more of?

Tensions also emerge given that ‘Notorious RBG’ was in reality, a wealthy, high-society individual who’s assumed progressiveness was increasingly disconnected from today’s civil rights movement. It has been suggested here that while Ginsburg supports minority rights, as seen with her previous standing to ensure voter protection in the 2013 Shelby County vs. Holder case, she doesn’t necessarily support minority activists who work to make these a reality. This is representative of her preference for an older era of civil rights heroes, who affected change through calculated lobbying and legal strategy. This is distinct from Black Lives Matter movements today, which are intentionally disruptive protests.

Kaepernik (an American footballer), alongside other players, was inspired by the movement, when he refused to stand for the national anthem to kickoff their games in 2016. Ginsburg’s response to such, which she later apologised for, was to call this “dumb”, “stupid” and “arrogant”. These comments appear far too uppity for comfort and as her apology should signify, is another teachable moment for the world’s ever-continued struggle to recognise and combat institutional racism – so deeply embedded that it “cripples even those who are allies in the struggle for equality”. Donofrio & Samek suggest that “the racial configurations animating ‘Notorious R.B.G' deflect attention from the mortal violence to which Black bodies are subject within the United States and hamper intersectional advocacy”. We must be clear not to minimise the impact and meaning behind her comments - if we walk away unaware, we ignore that the persona extends racial logics that have historically enabled” the avoidance of “grappling with racism and dismantling whiteness”.

Tangential to such has been her enactions affecting the Native American community – especially in regard to their legal efforts to secure sovereignty within the United States. The 2005 City of Sherrill vs. Oneida Indian Nation of New York is of significance. Herein, the issue was whether land granted to the Oneida Indian Nation, a federally recognised tribe of the Oneida community, in a 1794 treaty, which had been sold and repurposed to the tribe, should be included within the reservation and so, exempt from local taxes. Ginsburg, in her statement on the case, enunciated that the tribe could not assert their sovereignty over the land and instead, had to pay taxes to the city. In this statement, she claimed that the area and its inhabitants were of long-standing “non-Indian character” and so did not merit the community from being able to “revive its ancient sovereignty”.

This stance has since been significantly critiqued; Carole Goldberg, a Law Professor at UCLA, went so far as to label it a “very offensive” opinion given Ginsburg’s implication that “Native nations are a relic of America’s past” without a right to assert their sovereignty in the modern day. It is plausible that Ginsburg took this critique to heart, evident when she later publicly stated that she regretted her role in the case. Since then, it appears she sought to evolve her previous lack of understanding of tribal sovereignty and has authored opinions that affirmed tribal law. Of particular note is the 5-4 majority in McGirt vs. Oklahoma, one of Ginsburg’s last votes, consequential in affirming tribal sovereignty by ruling that the Eastern half of Oklahoma be considered Native American territory.

In ode to such, leaders of the Native American community did pay heartfelt tribute to Justice RBG upon her death, celebrating her heroism. As did other leaders representing minorities, including the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

To affirm, RBG remains a revered feminist icon. Nevertheless, there are questions we should continue to ask ourselves when we celebrate female representation at the ‘top’.

To do so, we leave you with some questions to instigate food for thought:

The question remains as to whether RBG’s ideology truly & entirely aligned with the internet community that idolises her? What does this mean for representation in who replaces her? How does that make us think about representation in the context in which we exist?

It is with this awareness and engagement that we can seek to decipher what sort of representation is truly representative of us, beyond the bounds and existence of a single individual.


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