Ruth Bader Ginsburg's #MeToo moment

US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg showed her support for the #MeToo movement and shared her personal experience of sexual harassment.

Posted: Jan 23, 2018 7:57 AM
Updated: Jan 23, 2018 7:57 AM

There is a misconception by some that women of the #MeToo movement relish their characterization as victims. This thinking goes that they were waiting for their chance to board the proverbial bandwagon for 15 minutes of fame -- an approach that is patronizing at best. The truth of the matter is, women acknowledging their membership in this undesirable club is nothing more than an acknowledgment of how deep the roots of oppression can run in a country whose historical soil is fertilized with inequality.

Sadly, I was not surprised when I learned of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's membership in this club, which she made public in remarks during an interview at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Every woman of my vintage knows about sexual harassment, but we didn't have a name for it," she said before recounting an instance in which a professor gave her a practice exam, which turned out to be identical to the real exam. "I knew exactly what he wanted in return." But Justice Ginsburg's experiences with attempted exploitation didn't end with graduation. Even as a professor, she experienced sexism, gender pay inequity and workplace discrimination.

Harassment, gender pay gaps, objectification, and sexual predation are hardly novel nor reserved for millennials. Climbing the professional ladder, whether as the first tenured woman at Columbia Law School or a Supreme Court justice, doesn't elevate you beyond the reach of bigotry. It merely gives you a better vantage point from which to observe the problems below. And from where Ginsburg sits, the problem is incremental progress in the area of civil rights and subjective determinations by the powerful of whose lives, bodies, aspirations, or rights matter.

The #MeToo movement has obvious parallels to -- and distinctions from -- the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Both movements are rooted in absolute truth. Both involve the exploitation of power and the unavailability of legal recourse. Both are replete with tales ranging on the horror spectrum from eyebrow-raising to downright diabolical.

But for the latter movement, stories of officer-involved shootings were dismissed at first as gratuitous race-baiting, then as exceptional cautionary tales, then as isolated incidents, then as pleas not to allow one bad apple to spoil the bunch. The court of public opinion was slow to grant validity, eventually yielding only to numbers tabulated in headstones.

But in the post-#MeToo era, it seems the tide has changed. Anecdotes are sufficient; formal due process is perhaps optional. Deaf ears are now empathetic, and unwilling to entertain the notion that misconduct could ever be "justifiable." What matters is listening to ensure that no one else will find their loved one's name next to a hashtag. Find it ironic? Me too.

But Justice Ginsburg's revelation was hardly intended to identify a powerful irony. It was intended to acknowledge the powerful force of momentum. The Supreme Court hears but a lean fraction of cases seeking its review. Among the factors it considers is the divisiveness of the issue presented, the impact of the court's holding on the nation, and whether the conduct at issue offends our collective constitutional principles. But as landmark civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education or Lawrence v. Texas demonstrate, momentum has a way of catapulting an issue to the front of the figurative queue.

But sometimes momentum yields unfortunate results. Before invalidating a key provision of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of racial discrimination to get pre-authorization from the Department of Justice before making any changes to its voting laws, for instance, Chief Justice John Roberts implied the election of black men and women to political office placed us in a post-racial world that no longer required this kind of government oversight.

Ginsburg correctly dissented, arguing instead that such protections were necessary in spite of perceptions of progress. She, like others who have experienced discrimination, understood that pruning the tree of oppression doesn't destroy its roots. Milestones, no matter how significant, should neither be blindly touted nor used as an excuse to call off the watchdogs. It should shock and offend you that a nation this old should still be patted on the back for taking its first steps.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the #MeToo movement seems to prompt such visceral reactions. People believed that we were in a post-gender world. We're not. People are surprised to learn that democratic principles of equality remain aspirational, and elude huge segments of our population. Even 45 years after the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade, the right of women to exercise autonomy over their bodies remains vulnerable to political attack.

The litmus test for whether you believe in equality is not whether one wears a pin; it is whether you understand that equality is the linchpin of a democratic society. Are you surprised that people still don't understand that? Me too.

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