Ruth Bader Ginsburg
March 15, 1933 – September 18, 2020
Portions of this article are from Professor Heather Cox Richardson’s September 18 newsletter.
I add my tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the thousands offered these past couple of weeks. In doing so, I also want to give tribute to the men who have opened doors for women that were previously shut and locked to keep us out. I hadn’t paid much attention to Ruth Bader Ginsburg until the movie about her came out a while back. I was mesmerized by her biography. Though our career paths took very different routes, our experiences as women in the professional world are similar.
Like Ruth, I’ve been blessed with a steady stream of male relatives, friends, and colleagues who have flung doors open for me and invited me across the threshold from where I was to where I could go, starting with my father. He insisted I get a college education, so I’d be equipped to handle whatever life might toss my way. Perhaps he was motivated by his sister who never married, instead choosing a long and productive career as a dietician for a major restaurant chain.
Live in a male-dominated world
I spent thirty years of my adult life working in the male-dominated world of the mainline church. I dropped out of my first year of seminary to move across the country so my first husband, Jim, could accept the new position he’d been offered. It was the early 80s. Our daughters were pre-teens and I wasn’t interested in a long-distance marriage. So, we moved and I spent a year exploring my options.
One evening during that year I listened to a young husband and father tell me he felt pulled to quit his day job to begin seminary studies to become a pastor. When I said I was also thinking about resuming my seminary studies, he said, “I don’t think women should be pastors.” He was willing to accept pastoral care from a woman, as long as she didn’t have the title pastor.
His sentiments were over-ruled by then Bishop Phil Wahlberg who strongly advocated for more women’s voices in pulpits. When told by a more conservative colleague, “The problem is, you permit the ordination of women,” he retorted, “We don’t permit it. We promote it.”
Have brains, will contribute
During that time between seminaries, my husband and I had lunch with the man who initiated our move across country. I needed a local reference and hoped he might give me one. Instead he told me he didn’t think women should work if they were married because their husbands needed them at home to handle the laundry.
Ruth Bader met her future husband, Martin Ginsburg, at Cornell, where she enrolled on a full scholarship. I resonated with her statement, “What made Marty so overwhelmingly attractive to me was that he cared that I had a brain.”
What do women want? I can’t speak for all women, but the majority of the women I know want opportunities to use our brains to work in partnership with male and female colleagues alike. We want to make life better for our families and neighbors.
Raising children is community service
I also love RBG’s statement to the directors of the documentary about her that she wanted to be remembered “Just as someone who did whatever she could, with whatever limited talent she had, to move society along in the direction I would like it to be for my children and grandchildren.” My sentiments exactly.
RBG began her law studies at Harvard Law School as one of nine women in a class of five hundred. She also helped Marty keep up with his studies and their toddler daughter while he fought cancer. But first she had to respond to the question about why she was taking the place of a man.
In the early 70s I stayed home with our one-year-old daughter. Jim’s first post college paycheck wasn’t stretching far enough to cover all the expenses. We decided I should return to the work force. In one interview I was asked how I would feel when my little girl started calling the babysitter “Mama.” I didn’t get the job. Instead I launched a freelance writing career from home. I did that until both daughters reached public school age. During that time someone asked me why I was wasting my college education. I thought I was investing in the future by overseeing the early years of my daughters’ development.
Thank you men who open doors for women
When it came time for RBG to line up a clerkship she ran into a lot of locked doors. But her mentor and law professor Gerald Gunther threatened Judge Edmund Palmieri that he’d never get another clerk from the professor if he didn’t accept her. I’ve heard stories about how Bishop Wahlberg dealt with congregations that told him they weren’t ready for a female pastor. According to legend, he’d tell them, “Well, call me when you are” and then refuse to give them names of potential candidates for their vacancies.
Though it’s gotten better in recent years, many female seminary graduates wait months or even years to get an interview. I experienced a relatively smooth transition from seminary to first call. There was a gap of nine months between graduation and the start of the new position, but after the rigors of seminary and managing a household, I was grateful for the break. During that time, I was a guest preacher in nearly every pulpit in the area affiliated with our denomination. That experience proved extremely beneficial later when, as a camp director, I relied on the support and connections of all those congregations.
Collaboration, not competition
I’ve heard many-a-sad story about conflicts between female and male clergy staff. Bill Waxenberg was the senior pastor where I was called to be the first associate pastor at the then six-year-old congregation. Typically, senior pastors introduce their colleagues as “my associate.” That never happened. Whenever we attended meetings together, he introduced me as his new colleague.
We had a middle age woman in the congregation die, leaving behind her husband, teenage daughter, and her mother. The mother was Catholic and wanted her priest to help with the funeral service. I knew her Catholic tradition was still insistent women could not be pastors. I didn’t want my presence to be the reason the distraught mother couldn’t have the comfort of her priest at the funeral. So, I offered to abstain from the funeral service. My colleague wouldn’t hear of it. “You’re a pastor of this congregation and these are our parishioners. The priest will have to decide how to handle the situation.”
Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a remarkable woman. Some of her long list of achievements stem from her connections to men who, to use modern terminology, “get it.” She and I have in common that we’ve been supported and encouraged by men who understand the concepts of cooperation, collaboration, accompaniment, and shared leadership.
After the accolades, more advocacy
I’m not surprised over a thousand people showed up at the steps of the Supreme Court to pay tribute to her legacy two weeks ago. Her death prompted people to donate $100,000 A MINUTE immediately after learning of her death. People collectively donated a staggering $12.5 million in two hours to places and causes that support issues she fought hard to implement, preserve and protect with her last dying breath.
RBG has raised the bar for all of us. Surely her life will continue to bless others who benefit from the changes she brought about. She achieved much, but there is yet work to do. We are still far away from our ideals of one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all people, of every race, creed, and political persuasion. It seems to me the best way we can pay tribute to her legacy is to complete the work she began.
I’m pleased to announce that pre-orders of Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale or Two Cultures are currently available at these places:
Bookshop.org (Supporting local Indie Bookshops)
Blue Willow on Memorial at Dairy Ashford https://www.bluewillowbookshop.com
Barnes & Noble in River Oaks at W. Gray