Lessons from Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Updated: Apr 3, 2021
Harold Bloom wrote, “Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?” I find lots of wisdom in biographies. People are going about the business of living their lives with varying degrees of extraordinariness, and yet hidden in the dailyness and everydayness of their lives are pearls and gems and home truths that, while simple, reverberate with wisdom.
Brush off the Slings and Arrows
Currently I’m finding wisdom in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s My Own Words, my book club book for February. Ginsburg's mother-in-law’s suggestion that “in every good marriage it helps sometimes be a little deaf” is advice Ginsberg applied to her marriage and workplaces, including the Supreme Court. It reminds me of a Kaizen-Muse Creativity Coaching technique: when someone says something that hurts your feelings or sticks in your craw, you physically brush it off, taking your hands and brushing across your shoulders and down your arms (or down your whole body if you need to) as if you were brushing off lint. The physical act disrupts the mind’s habit of filing away insults and barbs as supporting evidence in our cases against other people. The brush-off is very liberating (I’ve been known to do it in the grocery story to great advantage - I couldn’t even remember the snarky remark my husband made when I tried to recall it later) and echoes the marvelous quote Anne Lamott borrowed from Violet Weingarten: “Is life too short to be taking shit, or is life too short to mind it?”
Establish Habits and Routines that Support You
There’s lots of Jill Badonsky’s no-nonsense, git-her-done Muse Marge in Ruth Bader Ginsberg as well. “Many times,” Ginsberg writes, “when the road was rocky, I thought back to Father’s wisdom, spent no time fretting, and found a way to do what I thought important to get done.” There’s an invincible spirit hidden in these simple words: at the time, mothers didn’t commonly enroll in law school, but just because it isn’t commonly done doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Ginsberg took the next small step, engaging a nanny and creating a study routine that supported her dreams and gave her time with her daughter.
Celebrate People Who Inspire You
Ginsberg had an awesome habit of naming people she admired and identifying what she admired about them. Mentors and role models (real or fictional) offer powerful encouragement and open us to possibilities and new ideas. Ginsberg was inspired by a host of amazing people from her mother (“who encouraged Ruth to be independent and self-sufficient”) and Nancy Drew (“Nancy was a girl who did things. She was adventuresome, daring, and her boyfriend was a much more passive type than she was.”) to waypavers she researched and paid tribute to in speeches - people like Belva Lockwood, Gloria Steinem, Anne Frank and Sandra Day O’Connor. There is a lovely humility in Ginsberg’s willingness to see and celebrate others’ amazing contributions to equality, justice, community and collegiality.
I have a growing stack of fan zines I make in honor of people who inspire me - Toni Morrison, Gloria Steinem, Liz Gilbert and, of course, RBG. Finding ways to cultivate the company of mentors and muses - whether you know them personally or not - is such a lovely way to build a support system (even if it’s mostly a fantasy support system). Try writing a letter to yourself from one of your mentors when you need advice and support. Or try Tererai Trent's suggestion: write a letter to these torchbearers, telling them in detail what you admire in them and their work. (And if they are alive and you can get their addresses, Trent recommends sending the letter:)
Choose Community over Competition
Ginsberg also has a lovely sense of camaraderie rather than competition. We’ve been schooled in the myth of female rivalry (or at least I have), but Ginsberg celebrates other women, their contributions and perseverance in the face of oppression and challenges. It’s a model for finding connection and inspiration. Plus, acknowledging others’ contributions shines a light on the strength and resilience, intelligence and perseverance of all women - lifting others, lifts us all. As Tererai Trent writes, “Other women’s successful actions are not your competition; they are your inspiration and your opportunities. Sometimes the best way to overcome our own silencing is to see how others are rising above theirs.”
Don’t Wait for Permission
In one of Ginsberg’s speeches, she describes Mildred Loving, a Virginia woman of mixed African-American and Native American descent who had the audacity to fall in love with and marry a white man in 1958, breaking Virginia’s miscegenation laws. The case, Loving v. Virginia, eventually made its way to the Supreme Court where it was determined that Virginia’s law banning interracial marriage was unconstitutional. My favorite part of the story is when, after being forced to leave Virginia to avoid a year in jail, Mildred (now settled in D.C. with her husband Richard), became inspired by the Civil Rights movement and decided to write to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy about her situation. He suggested contacting the ACLU, which she did and the rest is history. But it’s Mildred Loving’s audacity - not waiting for permission, not waiting for Virginia to change its mind, committing to her heart and to hope - that I find so inspiring. As Tererai Trent writes, “I often find that my favorite moment in books, poems, and the stories women tell me is that point when a woman stops asking for permission and gets in touch with her power in the world.” Yes.
Commit to Your Calling
"Every single one of us has a calling. No matter who you are or where you come from. Your calling is that thing that only you can do. For most people, it is the thing you have to force yourself not to do.* When you ignore it, it is the thing that weighs on you, pulls at you, and consumes your conscience until you give it it's due. It is the thing that both terrifies you and brings you the most joy. Unless your path and purpose are nurtured from a young age, you may have no idea what's calling you."
Ginsburg's path was nurtured from a young age. She had a supportive mother "who encouraged Ruth to be independent and self-sufficient," plus encouraging teachers and in-laws. And, of course, she had Marty, her husband who, as Ginsburg wrote, "had enormous confidence in my ability, more than I had in myself."
But Ginsburg was also bucking a system that did not encourage women to pursue a career in law. As she writes, "To today's youth, judgeship as an aspiration for a girl is not at all outlandish. Contrast the ancient days (the fall of 1956) when I entered law school. Women were less than 3 percent of the legal profession in the United States and only one woman had ever served on a federal appellate court." So yes, Ginsburg had a Calling and a loving support system in pursuing it, but it must have also required iron will and courage to keep reaching for something that took her outside social norms and off of well-traveled paths. Her example demonstrates Dr. Tererai Trent's conviction: "... giving yourself permission to seek your purpose in this world is a sacred, social act."