Notorious Leadership on the Block
You see leaders look at the world through a different lens. They are curious and wonder what change could happen "if ...?"
I was out to dinner with friends when one of them blurted out, “OMG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg just died!” The silence at our table was palpable…no words for 30 seconds. We all teared up because we knew what this meant…but unspeakable in that moment. I went home and began to unpack the impact of her death. Justice Ginsburg’s staunch commitment to justice is what was resonating within me and how her dedication to dismantle gender discrimination inspired so many women and men to pursue protecting justice through their own professional and political venues. This is so fundamentally important given where we are in this chaotic nation today. I was visualizing equal rights spiraling down the toilet in a single flush.
This country was built on the notion that there is “liberty and justice for all” but Justice Ginsburg realized early on, as so many other marginalized people have, that this simply is not the reality. When she researched women in law, she could only find five female lawyers in the entire country. And so, she dedicated her life to literally shredding the systemic injustices during her time as a lawyer, fighting six cases against the Supreme Court, working for the ACLU, teaching law to many students yearning to become lawyers in their own right, and most importantly her time served as a Supreme Court Justice for 27 years on the United States Supreme Court. She cast so many important votes and opinions in support of voting and reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and criminal justice — including against the execution of people with intellectual disabilities and juveniles.
Justice Ginsburg encouraged countless women and men, including myself, who feel a sense of responsibility that her legacy continues. She never lost sight of “liberty and justice for all” and therefore found ‘her voice’ despite her soft-spokenness which led to many victories for women not only in the professional arena but in everyday life. She made us all feel that at all costs keep up the good fight of changing the world from one of injustice to “liberty and justice for all.”
I remember the frustration my mom experienced after she and my dad separated in 1977 and she could not get a credit card in her name. She was turned down by JC Penny’s, Sears, Bamberger’s (now Macy’s) and Gimbel’s. She only had one remaining card in her wallet which was to the then box store called Stern’s but it, too, was in my Dad’s name. She decided “to lie” to Sterns by telling them her husband wanted to add her to his account with a card in her name. That was how my mom was able to establish credit…on a lie. By Spring of 1981, I was a single woman graduating from college with no job prospects but my mailbox was full of credit card applications! Today, many of us carry in our wallets a reminder of Ginsburg’s legacy in the form of a credit card because she successfully argued that equality included women being able to establish financial independence.
What has been fascinating is how Ginsburg’s achievements elevated her to becoming a superstar as there is an entire world of pop culture dedicated to her. The book “Notorious RBG,” by Carmon and Knizhnik (2015) conveys this iconic woman who transcends all generations. Not only was she compared to Notorious B.I.G, RBG herself said they did have things in common, but she’s had t-shirts donning her face, musical rap videos, and people are actually tattooing themselves with her image. And let’s not forget RBG bobbleheads and lace collars! She’s even ‘held court’ on Saturday Night Live by comedian Kate McKinnon who immortalized the justice’s “bad-ass-ness” with getting people ‘Ginsburned’ on national television. Across America, people who weren’t even born when Ginsburg first made her name as a feminist pioneer are embracing Notorious RBG.
Supreme Court Justices simply do not get portrayed this way so why Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg aka RBG? What makes her the notorious leader on the block whether it’s Brooklyn or the bench? Because that’s what happens when an extraordinary leader comes our way. You see, leaders look at the world through a different lens. They are curious and wonder what change could happen “if…?” How do we transform the law to ensure “liberty and justice for all?” She thought about what the world would be like for our daughters and granddaughters “if.” A part of her story is that her father asked her to work so that she could help fund her brother’s tuition to attend college. College was no place for a girl. This was the impetus for her to begin wanting “to build the idea of women’s equality step by step” she once said. Only leaders who can envision the future can create the foundation of seed planting to create a new landscape.
Exemplary leaders also challenge the norm by taking risks. The word “notorious” is defined as someone “famous or well known, typically for some bad quality or deed.” While other women were taking to the streets in the seventies, Ginsburg was, I’m sure, making her own deliberate moves which included understanding and utilizing power to change systems. Now that’s the pinnacle of notorious behavior as she quietly and steadily litigated cases that purportedly undermined the very fabric of our family structure.
But, as good leaders do, Ginsburg created trust and respect amongst her peers which is not easy to do. She created very real and lifelong friendships with people who did not necessarily share the same viewpoints such as her friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. Her relationships were built on kindness and shared humanity – lessons she learned from her mom. She was friendly, but firm and didn’t personally attack or judge others…well there was this one time regarding a current sitting president but she’s human, I say! And while Ginsburg’s diminutive appearance made her seem like she lacked the strength and fortitude to confront the opposition she was quite the contrary. She was a warrior, a powerhouse packed in a petite body who demanded “liberty and justice for all.”
Most importantly, she inspired us. She inspired generations of women to march displaying signs and chanting about rights and freedom especially when it comes to our bodies. She inspired women and men to become lawyers and judges to ensure that the law protects everyone and not just a special few.
Here is where she began teaching about women, equality and the law and then by the 1970s, she challenged how employers, government and the private sector, were treating men differently than women. She made it possible so that women could have full careers and men could have full participation in family life. Her personal experiences dictated how she was going to be an advocate of change for the family. Leaders inspire. That’s what they do best.
Recently CBS Sunday Morning reported in their lead cover story called Working Mothers on the Edge which I found troubling. The focus was on how the pandemic has created an impossible situation for working women: they are doing their job, their childcare worker's job, and their child(ren)'s teacher's job. Furthermore, the pressure has been even greater from supervisors who are forcing women to make choices between their job or their children. And while plenty of fathers are struggling, a new study shows that women are almost three times more likely than men not to be working due to childcare demands because of the pandemic. Ultimately, 865,000 women left the workforce last month, versus 216,000 men.
This is important. It’s important because this was the impetus of Ginsburg’s efforts to create “liberty and justice for all” with her trailblazing work of dismantling sex and gender discrimination. But Women are struggling and/or losing their jobs because we’ve lost some precious territory in the fight for equality apparently due to the pandemic. Or I should say the pandemic has allowed for these sexist behaviors to bubble-up and prevail once again. As one woman so sadly, but eloquently, said in the CBS news story, "I don't ever want a mom to feel like I do, that they have to choose to either work and not have kids, or to be a stay-at-home mom. We could have both. We can be working mothers." Women said this in the seventies and I feel like 50 years of work is unraveling like an old frayed sweater right in front of us. We can’t go back there ever again.
Ginsburg was a leader who was honorable, brave, strong and resilient and who dedicated her life to creating a difference for women, for men, our families, and our bodies. We had her brilliance, tenacity and leadership to be grateful for in so many ways — I just love this woman for everything she did, in her own way, which is why I have felt such a sense of grief since her death. WE lost a pioneering feminist who was known throughout the world. Many leaders can become famous but few have achieved Ginsburg's legendary stature as a leader for doing the exemplary work she has done that will have an impact on many generations to come. But her work is not yet done as it always seems to be when battling injustice.
So, dig deep. use your voice, use your intellect, use your resources, use your privilege -- use whatever you’ve got in your arsenal bag of ‘notorious bad-ass-ness’! We can collectively come together to ensure that “liberty and justice for all” remains who we are today and for the future of humankind. “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” ~ Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg