The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has rocked many Americans to their core. Many of those people feeling particularly vulnerable are women. For her entire career, Ginsburg was a champion of women, fighting for their right to be seen as equal in a time when they weren’t. While pretty much all women see her as our superhero, white women have really embraced her as their one and only savior. And though she was a champion for women, marginalized women have rightfully pointed out the flaws in her work and legacy. Her death has brought some of those criticisms back to the forefront of our current conversations. But their criticisms aren’t meant to tarnish her legacy; they’re meant to point out that no one is perfect and detail how we can continue to do better.
Whether she was aware of it or not, RBG became one of the most visible icons of white feminism. She gained the moniker the “Notorious RBG,” which is in and of itself cultural appropriation. Lawyer Shana Knizhnik stole the iconography and name from the Notorious B.I.G., and launched Ginsburg into a stratosphere she never really asked for. It felt as if overnight, she became trendy, with her face plastered on everything from tote bags to tee shirts. Women began wearing earrings shaped like the collar she wore over her robe. “I dissent” became some sort of rallying cry for the same women who previously donned pink pussy hats.
In 2018, two different pieces of media further elevated Ginsburg to icon status. One was a documentary that shows her in the gym working out in her 80s, which only reinforces this notion of her being superhuman. And the other was a film, On the Basis of Sex, which is a fictionalized version of her working in the 1970s. These were both released after she earned the “notorious” moniker, and they certainly didn’t hurt her new image. White women see themselves in Ginsburg. She was a champion for women, yes, but she also had a cuddly grandmotherly persona. It was easy for them to adopt her and adapt her into the narrative they wanted.
One of the biggest issues with becoming an unwitting icon of white feminism is that it makes you impervious to critique. Somehow, many of these women equate a critique of one of their icons as a personal attack. They hold their icons up in such high regard that if you dare to offer another viewpoint, you’re wrong. Not only are you wrong, you deserve to be shamed and shutdown. It makes it hard for people, especially those of us who are more marginalized, to have any sort of truly effective conversations, because they go on the offense immediately.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was, and is, more than just a woman on someone’s T-shirt. She was a flesh and blood person. A civil servant whose job was to act in the best interest of the entire public she served. But by putting her up on a pedestal, they paint her as a superhero, and not someone who was human and made mistakes.
Those who are criticizing Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy aren’t doing so to knock her down a few pegs. Anyone offering criticism or another side of her work is merely doing so to paint a more well rounded picture of her career, not take anything away from her legacy. They’re doing it because when white women become feminist icons, their questionable choices are ignored, having reached an “untouchable” status. But RBG was a real person, and like any other real person, she was by no means perfect.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg did a lot to ensure that women had equal rights to men. No one is discounting that. But you can’t ignore the very real criticism of who her work really benefits. Much of her best known work as a lawyer is from her time working for the ACLU in the 1970s. Second-wave feminism was in full swing, and at the time, marginalized women — especially women of color and queer women — were left out of the conversations and fights. It’s the reason Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in the 1980s. Ginsburg is a part of a generation of white women who equated feminism as equality with men. But they were really fighting for white women.
In an article for the The Establishment about Ginsburg’s legacy, Muqing Zhang writes, “Although it may not have been Ginsburg’s explicit intent to harm the most marginalized of women, part of the insidiousness of white feminism is that it convinces its believers that the white woman’s experience is the universal experience for all women, and that all women aspire to the social position of white men. In the end, it is not the intent, but the devastating impact that matters.”
In the days following Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, we saw posts detailing all the things she did to advance women. Things like being able to get a credit card without a man co-signing, or not being able to get fired because you’re pregnant. All of those accomplishments are incredibly valuable. But it’s also important to understand that some of her actions led to hardship for others. Because her vision of feminism meant equality with men, she was creating more trouble for those more marginalized than her. It’s one of the biggest issues with white feminism. Their biggest hurdle is equity with white men. But equity for BIPOC, especially Black women, is simply having a seat at the table. And by fighting cases that gave men equality by taking advantages away from women, she was pushing marginalized women further away.
Just because someone does a lot of good work doesn’t mean that they don’t also make missteps. No one is perfect, especially not people in positions of power. Ruth Bader Ginsburg did a lot of good in her career. She fought tirelessly for women’s equality, and made sure that those who were marginalized felt at least somewhat protected. She made sure to give credit where credit was due, like citing the work of Pauli Murray, a Black, queer legal scholar. She filed a brief in 1977 challenging whether a Georgia law allowing the death penalty for rape was constitutional. She knew that it would unfairly target Black men accused of raping white women.
We know there’s good in her legacy.
When reviewing someone’s legacy, it’s important to point out the good and the bad — especially when those decisions still impact people — so that the new decision-makers can learn from both going forward.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is always going to be held in high esteem, and rightfully so. But the last five-plus years where she became more of a symbol than a person changed our ability to point out her flaws. And that does everyone a major disservice, especially BIPOC women.
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