I wanted to love Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I’d been looking for a general, any kind of leader at all, from the moment I understood I was in a fight. Since puberty, at least, danger first spread its sails on my horizon. There would be marriage, early. Children as soon as possible. College was not just acceptable but mandatory, as far as my parents were concerned, but a career was unnecessary. It might even be a sinful distraction. Because no matter how many degrees I earned or jobs I added to my résumé, the fundamental truth of the world would not change. Husbands led and wives followed them. A man would win the bread, and I’d turn it into sandwiches at home.
This sounds like the 1950s or even the 1940s — Ginsburg’s formative years. Alas, I speak of the late 1990s. The time-warp quality of my girlhood was kind of the point. To fundamentalist Christians like my parents, the world had shifted into a dangerous mode. Americans abused their secular liberties, and confused spiritual dangers for freedom. Choice was a tool of the Enemy, a gateway to feminism and gay sex and drugs. Later, I concluded that choice was salvation. And when I struck out in pursuit of my freedom, I sought out women to admire. I yearned for them. I wanted sound where there had been silence, power where there had been submission, liberation where there had been coercion and shame.
And so there was Ginsburg. Around the time Ginsburg first became “notorious,” I lived in Washington, D.C., and even owned an RBG shirt. It was Obama’s second term; Republicans controlled Congress and most state governments. Though I’d been away from fundamentalism for years, I felt I hadn’t traveled much distance at all. The beliefs that nearly trapped me still threatened my future, along with that of every other woman in the country. Ginsburg’s presence on the Supreme Court looked like hope, a tiny but indomitable obstacle between the Christian right and the hegemony it craved.
I share the outpouring of rage that greeted Ginsburg’s death last Friday, and regard her popular cult with some sympathy. But by the time of Ginsburg’s passing, two truths had become apparent. The late justice really did advance the cause of equality for women and, from her seat on the high court, protected our progress from those who would tear it up by the roots. Underneath the pop-culture ephemera, though, Ginsburg was a complicated figure. She wasn’t the hero I’d wanted, even if her career helped make my independence possible.
Scalia was a clue. For the liberal women who love RBG, there was almost no greater foe. The justice seemed to derive personal fulfillment, even pleasure, from the obstruction of all social progress. In a partial dissent to the Supreme Court’s 1992 verdict in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Scalia compared abortion to “homosexual sodomy, polygamy, adult incest, and suicide.” He dissented from Lawrence v. Texas, which nullified sodomy bans; years later, when the court overturned bans on gay marriage he wrote, bitterly, that the decision was “hubris” manifest.
Yet, as we all know, he and Ginsburg were improbable friends. They went to the opera together. They vacationed together. The pairing became part of the Ginsburg legend, possibly because it’s the sort of story D.C. likes to tell about itself. Like James Carville and Mary Matalin, we can all get along. The system works; democracy functions. The truth is much uglier. There’s no ethical disagreement so profound that a shared class position can’t bridge it. Maybe the risk posed by a figure like Antonin Scalia looks smaller and easier to ignore when you’re looking down at it from on high. But to women in large portions of the country, abortion is already illegal in practice, no matter what the law dictates on paper. Conservatives, with a major assist from Scalia, winnowed down Roe until it became a shadow of itself. From a different vantage point, Ginsburg’s friendship with Scalia doesn’t look like a charming anecdote. Rather, it was a failure of moral judgement.
This suggests a somewhat less heroic reading of her legacy. Over the course of her long legal career, Ginsburg carved out a space for women that had no real historical precedent. She did so not just through her personal accomplishments, but through her work on pregnancy discrimination. When I left fundamentalism, it was easier, in part, because of Ginsburg and the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, which she helped found. Pregnancy, the late justice argued, simply represented one aspect of the human condition. It was an essential but temporary state that should not define a woman’s professional life. That idea wound its way into our jurisprudence and into social policy, thanks in no small part to Ginsburg again; she helped draft the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. I didn’t have to become a housewife after all. I had choices: a family or a career or both, if I wanted.
And for a few years in my early 20s, a career felt like the most subversive thing I could want. I had confused work with liberation, I think, when the most it really offered me was independence. I find pleasure and meaning in the work I perform. I would never give it up for anyone, not for children and certainly not for a husband. When I get married next year, I’ll keep my last name. Those are my choices. They are not all that radical. But what feminist significance does my career really possess when Roe is a practical fiction for women without health insurance; when a Black woman can be killed by the police as she sleeps; or when a doctor can sterilize women in ICE custody without their consent?
We are talking, after all, about a woman who died a feminist icon. Feminism, as in the movement for women; the plural matters. On this score, Ginsburg could be a disappointment. Her reputation as a liberal firebrand never quite matched up with her record or the remarks she made to the public. “I think it’s really dumb,” she said of Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel for the national anthem. As a justice, Ginsburg had “a bit of a law and order streak,” Mark Joseph Stern once noted for Slate. She joined court conservatives to grant immunity to a Texas police officer who shot and killed a suspect against orders from his own supervisor. She joined a unanimous opinion that granted an Amazon contractor the right to deprive warehouse workers of overtime pay for the time they spent in security checkpoints. Ginsburg helped save DACA, but in June of this year, she sided with the Trump administration on fast-track deportations. On other major criminal-justice cases the justice — famous for her passionate dissents — remained oddly quiet. The task of resistance fell to liberals like Sonia Sotomayor, as Stern noted in his piece. And then there is Ginsberg’s decision not to retire. As the writer Mari Uyehara noted in a piece for The Nation last year, Ginsburg’s refusal to give up her seat when President Obama had a chance to fill it seems “hopelessly naïve.”
Now we hang over the abyss. Anyone who still looks to the Supreme Court for hope must think it is nearly extinguished. That’s the problem with lionizing figures like RBG. Ginsburg made the system work better for women, but she was also restricted by it, and even complicit in its continued failures. The Supreme Court that raised Ginsburg up high is an overpowered, undemocratic institution. Our government was dysfunctional long before Trump got to the White House. The small-c conservatism that shaped Ginsburg’s public persona and decision-making could not be further out of step with the moment. Hope still exists, but it does not lie with the justices, who attended the most elite schools in the country and possess lifelong sinecures to plot the trajectory of our lives. Hope is in the streets. Hope is a “really dumb” protest.
I owe Ginsburg something, I know that. But American feminism doesn’t have much of a future if it simplifies women. The movement doesn’t need any celebrity generals at all, and the impulse to anoint one reflects a deep failure of political imagination. Ginsburg was not a monster; she wasn’t a hero, either. The truth is in keeping with Ginsburg’s own legal reasoning and the work that defined her before she joined the Supreme Court. “The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage,” she once argued. She was right.