This is the third in a series of articles about forward thinkers who are helping to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. These remarkable people are helping to define the future direction of their community, country, and even our global society. Vote for your favorites to win the Pilot Fish Trailblazer Award and suggest new nominees in the comments section below.
This week, my Pilot Fish Trailblazer nominee comes from the legal world. She has distinguished herself as a litigator, as well as a Chief Justice in the United States Supreme Court. It would be easy for me to single out Ruth Bader Ginsburg for her ideological positions, but she has earned my vote for a number of other reasons that may surprise you. Given that she is first and foremost a lawyer, I am going to build my case for her point by point. Ready? Here goes:
1. She is diminutive in stature, but a giant in battle, reminding us of the power of the individual to bring about change. She has single-mindedly pursued the goal of changing the law to ensure gender equality. Instead of just focusing on women’s rights, she has made a strong case that men’s rights are equally as important.
It is not women’s liberation, it is women’s and men’s liberation.–Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Through her legal career, she has embodied the commitment to justice and has chosen to take action for causes beyond her own self interests. When I saw this charming (and deceptively profound) short video by RSA.org on choosing to act to bring about change, I thought of Ruth. In fact, I can imagine her narrating it:
2. She has overcome her shyness and fear and has thoughtfully articulated her position even when facing formidable adversaries. A leading voice of dissent on the Supreme Court, she states her case thoughtfully, precisely, and succinctly. She reminds us that talking in the loudest and most strident voice is not the way the win hearts and minds. (Take note–political candidates!)
Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘my colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way,’ but the greatest dissents do become court opinions.”–Ruth Bader Ginsburg
3. She has lived through adversity and was not victimized by it. When she and her husband Marty Ginsburg were at Harvard Law School, he was given a devastating cancer diagnosis. At that point, Ruth took care of their young daughter, attended classes at the law school during the day, and at night she helped her husband keep up with his coursework when he was too sick to go to school. Refusing to surrender to fear, she learned she could function on 2 hours of sleep at night. (This practice has continued up until now–even though Ruth is in her 80’s.) Marty not only survived, but he graduated from Harvard Law and had a long and distinguished career as a tax lawyer. This same optimism and pragmatic attitude has helped Ruth through other periods of adversity, such as her own bouts with cancer and Marty’s death in 2010.
You can’t have it all, all at once. Who—man or woman—has it all, all at once? Over my lifespan I think I have had it all. But in different periods of time things were rough. And if you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it.”— Ruth Bader Ginsburg
4. She has shown us a way to bring about change: instead of getting angry at injustice in the moment, it’s far wiser to take action later with a clear mind and when the opportunity arises. Despite graduating first in her class at Columbia Law School, Ruth was turned down 14 times by Manhattan law firms, many of them because she was a woman. Deciding that anger was pointless, she focused her search on academic positions and became a law professor at Rutgers. Never forgetting the sting of injustice, she decided to take action when the moment was right. With the help of her husband Marty, she created a legal battle plan, that was “characteristically cautious, precise, and single-mindedly aimed at one goal—winning.” (Source: Nina Totenberg, “Notes on a Life” from The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.) She took on and won a number of significant cases involving sex discrimination, six of which she argued before the Supreme Court. These victories have changed the legal “landscape” for both men and women by winning new opportunities and rights within the law.
You think about what would have happened … Suppose I had gotten a job as a permanent associate. Probably I would have climbed up the ladder and today I would be a retired partner. So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great good fortune.–Ruth Bader Ginsburg
5. Her most valued relationships are built on mutual trust, respect, and support, and not personal gain or power. When her husband Marty was dying from cancer in 2010, he wrote a note to Ruth saying that he “admired and loved” her almost from the moment they met. He told a friend, “I think the most important thing I’ve done is to enable Ruth to do what she has done.” She has expressed the same values and devotion to him, which lasted through their 6 decades of marriage. This shows that relationships based on gaining power or political advantage are not the only “scripts” for success. Ruth has followed a very different model and has still risen to the top of her field.
6. She is re-scripting the role of older women. Her blazing intelligence, her willingness to take on the tough issues and engage in legal and ethical battles, and her quiet voice of dissent have won the admiration of people of all ages and are helping to eradicate the stereotype of the “little old lady.” Even her signature fish net gloves and dissent “collar” that she wears in court show that she has a style that is uniquely her own. Recently, one of her interns created a site on Tumblr in her honor called Notorious RBG, which has caught the attention of a younger generation and helped make her a cultural icon. Her likeness now appears on posters, T-shirts and mugs, and even tattoos. Her dissenting opinions are publicized on Twitter and Facebook and have spread around the world.
7. Ruth shows us that it is wise to be open to different opinions and willing to admit when we’re wrong. Watching the American political debates on TV and following the news, I am tempted sometimes to think that the United States and most of the world are totally polarized–split into opposing ideological sides of “right” and “wrong,” “left,” and ” right.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows us the value and importance of making friends from a variety of backgrounds and being open to different ideological viewpoints. Her friendship with the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia has mystified many people, including some of her friends. But Ruth believes in staying open to and curious about all opinions, even ones that she may be initially opposed to. This fierce independence of mind is rare as well as the willingness to change one’s mind, when faced with clear and compelling evidence. These qualities are sorely needed by our politicians who are stuck in ideological quicksand and refuse to compromise.
They should learn from Ruth who understands the benefits and unexpected satisfaction of “crossing the aisle” and making friends with the opposition. A delightful story in her biography (cited above) involves her friend Justice Scalia, who is often her adversary in the court. Both of them share a love of the opera and go to performances together. They have also been invited to appear onstage as “extras” in several operatic productions. I can’t help but smile as I picture these 2 distinguished legal minds appearing onstage together–in costume.
I – try to teach through my opinions, through my speeches, how wrong it is to judge people on the basis of what they look like, color of their skin, whether they’re men or women.”–Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Finally, I’ll end my “case” with Justice Ginsburg’s own summation of her life and work and how she’d like to be remembered:
Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has. To do something, as my colleague David Souter would say, outside myself. ‘Cause I’ve gotten much more satisfaction for the things that I’ve done for which I was not paid.
So, what do you think? Have I made a strong case for Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Did I win you over or did she already have your vote? If you’re curious and want to learn more about RBG, her career, and her marriage, I highly recommend this interview on Makers.com, as well as the recent biography Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which is a playful and fascinating exploration of her life, her ideology, and her legacy.
And now a special announcement: I am delighted to tell you that we’ll soon have a guest blogger who will be posting her choice for the Pilot Fish Trailblazer Award. Jackie Cangro is a terrific writer, the author of several books, and an advocate for animals. Her posts are funny, enjoyable, and always insightful. You can read more about her and her work on her site.
Have a great week, everyone!
Categories: Pilot Fish Trailblazer Awards