On Mourning and Criticising Ruth Bader Ginsburg

To celebrate my eleventh birthday (which at the time I thought was an exceptionally important age), I convinced my parents to take me to the beautiful city of Jaipur in India. It was my first time visiting the Pink City and I was taken aback by its sheer grandeur. The city is full of architectural marvels like havelis, Rajasthani delicacies, and special textiles that represent Indian heritage. On our last day, I found myself gawking at the glorious wall of famous portraits in the hotel we were staying at. Some faces seemed rather familiar, like those of Bollywood actors and Rajput Maharajas, but the rest were of people I had never seen before. One such photograph that caught my eye was of two folks posing as they enjoyed an elephant ride in Jaipur. When I asked the hotel staff if they knew who those people were and why they were on that wall, I was informed that they were prominent figures in the US Supreme Court. When I read the caption underneath the photo, I was introduced to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She, along with Justice Antonin Scalia, were touring India back in 1994. At a ripe eleven years of age, I could not care any less about the Indian Supreme Court, let alone the Supreme Court of a country seven seas away. However, the hotel concierge noticed my growing disinterest in the picture and said to me, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the second woman to have been a part of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. To put things into perspective, only three women in India have ever been promoted to the mere level of a Supreme Court judge. Not a single woman has ever been appointed as the Chief Justice of India.” It was at this moment that I realised the professional field of law comprised predominantly of men and to this date, I know of more male lawyers than female. Ruth Bader Ginsburg happened to be the first woman with a legal career that I was familiarised with. I think it is safe to say that the heart and soul of my feminist awakening can be attributed to this concierge. After returning to Mumbai, my journey of admiration and dismay with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg began.

On September 19th 2020, I woke up to the tragic news of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG). She fought for justice, gender equality, and individual dignity. RBG has shaped almost three decades of the fight for equality and paved the way for innumerable women to partake in society, economics, and politics in the USA. As the co-founder and advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project from 1972 to 1980, she argued six landmark cases in front of the Supreme Court, winning five. In her years on the Supreme Court bench, she issued both majority opinions as well as vehement dissents against pay, race, and gender discrimination and in favor of affirmative action, voting, and reproductive rights. “To be part of the decision-making of this court – that is an incomparable privilege,” she said, “it’s by far the hardest and best job I’ve ever had.” Yet, it is important to highlight that even with her remarkable achievements in pursuit of gender equality, she was unable to create a safe space for people of colour in the USA. RBG was a white woman that ultimately failed to apprehend and address causes that affect BIPOC women and other marginalised groups.

No one disputes the overwhelming Western hegemony in media outlets, particularly that of the United States of America. As much as I strive to stray from this dominance, I find it useful to refer back to The New York Times. Last week, to my disbelief, I received a notification from The New York Times that said, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg is being succeeded by Amy Coney Barrett, who has been confirmed as the ninth Justice of the US Supreme Court.” While RBG was not truly the “radical left wing” icon as believed by many, her opinions generally inclined to the liberal side. However, her successor lies on the opposite end of the political spectrum which can prove detrimental for the lives of millions. Amy Coney Barrett was nominated to replace RBG by Donald Trump just days after her death. She is said to be a Constitutional “originalist” – a person that interprets the country’s Constitution as per the meanings and intentions of its 18th century writers, who were racist. The writers of the US Constitution upheld slavery to their personal benefit while denying BIPOC any citizenship or recognition. Barrett is also known to have consistently conservative and problematic views on issues of racial justice, the climate crisis, and sexual and reproductive rights. Even as we mourn the loss of RBG, who fought tirelessly for equality, we have to face the aspersion to her life’s work that appointing a woman like Barrett exhibits. This also reveals a larger issue of the American judicial system: its fragility and dependence on one single white woman to make the “right” decisions. It is important for us to remember that simply having women in positions of power isn’t inherently feminist, especially when they use their power to do more harm to BIPOC women and marginalised communities. If the “ruling class” put these women in positions of power, it is quite the opposite of feminism, as it perpetuates an elitism that thrives off of ignoring intersectionality. With that being said, RBG vindicated this elite ruling class that benefited from white and neoliberal feminism. 

In reality, RBG was not the progressive queen she was portrayed to be. As of 2018, she had only hired one Black law clerk since joining the Supreme Court in 1993, but hired numerous white women. She also called Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality and racial inequality “really dumb and disrespectful.” Kaepernick began “taking the knee” as the American national anthem played during American football games and has since devoted his platform to fighting for racial equality. She never advocated for the preservation of Indegenous land and ended up voting for the construction of a 600 mile pipeline to be  built under the Appalachian Trail, which happens to be just one example of a non-POC in a position of authority  sustaining settler colonialism. Another instance of her anti-Indegenous attitude is when she ruled in favour of repurchasing tribal land and asserted that this does not restore the idea of “tribal sovereignty.” Her exact words when asked about her decision were, “the Court must prevent the Tribe from rekindling the embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold.” Lastly, although RBG fought for abortion and reproductive rights, she made a blatantly racist statement that demonstrated her support for eugenics and suggested an ulterior motive for passing the Roe v. Wade. The Chicago Tribune reports what she said to the New York Times Magazine back in 2009, “there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.” These are only a few of the problematic causes she supported and instances where she did not use her privilege for good. 

RBG is considered a cultural icon with her own cult following. What allows this cult to flourish is the capitalist society we live in. Publishing children’s books about RBG such as I Dissent. Putting her face on T-shirts that say “Notorious RBG” which cost twenty Euros but dismiss the fact that they were made in South Asian sweatshops by women who earn less than seven Euros a day. Signing a Hollywood movie and CNN documentary deal that romanticise RBG’s life and attempt to highlight the struggles of a white woman pursuing law. This makes RBG’s legacy nothing but capitalist money making at its best. Due to this, her positive legal contributions to US society often gravely overshadow any discussion about her actions that negatively affected marginalised communities. While I understand the need to grieve RBG’s death, I strongly believe that it is time we stop idolising her as a feminist icon and consciously reflect on the implications of having a role model that stood for anti-BIPOC and anti-Indegenous values. 

While RBG’s impact on the American legal system and her contribution to women’s rights and gender equality are undeniable, we can’t look at RBG’s life and career through rose-coloured glasses. Lena Meginsky (Bard Annandale Class of 2022) eloquently summarises, “I think it is extremely important to constantly question people who choose to hold dominative power in society. RBG had a few cool moments in her time, and definitely experienced hurdles and discrimination to obtain her career as a Supreme Court Justice; but that does not change the fact that she was oppressive and not “radical.” These are aspects (and hard facts) of public and political figures to not turn a blind eye on because they “represent”  “progressive-ness.” Just because she rejected Donald Trump doesn’t mean she was a saint that consistently supported the most marginalised, exploited, and oppressed groups in this country when she had the power to be bold for them. She was a capitalist that sat in a different section of the ruling class, parallel to the US governmental complex – where she preserved and defended settler colonialism. RIP RBG – but from now on I’m doing my research to make sure I know exactly who and what I’m mourning before I praise anything or anyone. I urge my friends and family to do the same.”

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