RBG, AOC, and ME

RBG passed. That I begin by calling her, simply, RBG and assume that you know who I mean, is a testament to her notoriety. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Notorious RBG. An icon, a role model, and someone most women I know, were counting on to keep our rights protected. It’s because of her, I can open a bank account, apply for a credit card, or mortgage a home without the help of a man. It’s because of her that I’ve felt sure that, I’m protected from discrimination against in the workplace on the basis of my sex. She brought us far, and she did it by being more than brilliant. She did it through dogged and unrelenting work. 

photo from Advocate.com

People describe her as a serious woman, a lover of the opera, a terrible cook, and a brilliant mind. She was also, I read again and again, married to a wonderful man who exemplified true equality in marriage, decades before its time. By all accounts, Marty Ginsburg was RBG’s greatest cheerleader. He lobbied for her appointment to the Supreme Court. He moved to D.C. joking that he moved, “because his wife got a good job.” He cooked. For a couple who married in 1954, theirs was an unusual dynamic. It’s easy to imagine that this was just how he was— a man ahead of his time, who supported a woman determined to change the world— but that’s an oversimplification. When they married in 1954, they had, by and large, a 1954-style marriage. Take a look at this account from Time Magazine

Soon after Ruth began law school at Harvard in 1956 — one of only nine women in a class of roughly 500 men — Martin, who was one year ahead at the school, fell ill. He had testicular cancer, a diagnosis that required a number of surgeries and radiation therapy. Ruth, raising their toddler daughter, Jane, continued shining academically at Harvard Law while caring for a sick husband. That care included helping Martin pass (and excel in) his classes, too.

Ginsburg has said that after a day of her own classes, receiving notes for Martin’s from his peers, preparing dinner for the family, caring for a sick Marty and typing his senior paper, per his dictation, she would return to her own coursework at around 2 a.m.


She would return to her own coursework at around 2 a.m. 

Think about that. 

She got where she got, not just by doing for herself and working hard, but through a willingness to keep going after she’d cared for everybody else. She not only cared for her husband’s health, but helped him maintain his career. And she did all of those things, first. 

I’m not saying what she did in caring for her husband wasn’t admirable— it was. And I’m not saying it wasn’t incredible— it was that, too. I’m only saying that this particular story highlights how, historically, in order for women to succeed, they must do for others first, and only then is there time to pursue one’s own dreams. It was true in 1956, and I think—even though we don’t always acknowledge it— for many women, it’s true today. 

In 2017, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told Cooties Zine, ““Ultimately, feminism is about women choosing the destiny that they want for themselves. If a woman wants to choose to stay at home with her children, that should be a choice she can pursue. On the flip side, if a woman wants to choose an entirely different life for herself, we need to make that possible as well.” I feel about this statement, much the same way I felt about her thoughts on beauty and makeup. On the surface, this seems great. Even ideal. Choice is choice. On the surface.

Take me: I choose to work part-time so I can write. I make less money in order to make room for my creative life, free of sleep deprivation. (Staying up until 2 a.m. to make time for writing wouldn’t work for me. Baby needs her sleep.) In part, this is a choice made possible by my husband’s full-time job. A natural consequence of this choice is that I have more time available to do laundry, buy groceries, and make dinners. We’ve slipped, almost unintentionally, into very traditional gender roles: husband works, wife takes care of the house (and her Pilates business, and her writing life). Maybe it’s fine. Maybe I get to make this choice, because of the strides made by previous generations. I wonder, though: is my choice to prioritize my creative life ahead of more conventional measures of success contributing to a sort of cultural backsliding? 

By trading household responsibility for the privilege of time, am I also trading in power? Are we trading in power?

I don’t feel that this trade-off has given up any power within my marriage or my family. I suspect it contributes to how much respect I gain (or don’t) with people who don’t know me well. I worry I might be giving up something I’m not even aware that I have, because I’ve never been without it. I take for granted rights and freedoms that my predecessors— RBG, Gloria Steinem, my mother, et al— championed.

We don’t know what’s coming next. Who our next President will be. What our Supreme Court will look like. Today, there are more women in congress than ever before, but what about in January? And even if there are just as many women elected in 2020, none of them is RBG. Not yet. That simplified choice AOC presents, the idea that women can pick one lane or the other, and it’s all just… fine. I don’t think we’re there yet. That’s utopian feminism. Right now, what power we as women have, we have not had for very long, and if we are not very careful, we might lose it. 

If feminism is about choice, I need to seriously consider my own.

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