House of Many Gables


July 20, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- Not long ago, the leaders of a local NOW chapter dreamed up the perfect T-shirt for their membership. On the front it would read: ''I'm a radical feminist.'' On the back: ''Unless, of course, you think I'm too conservative.''

It's a shame the T-shirt never got into production. I'd like to send one to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to wear under her dressed-for-judicial-success suit today at the Senate confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. Ever since the diminutive and reserved appeals-court judge accepted the nomination, she's been regarded suspiciously by conservatives, but also warily by some feminists.

The word that has attached itself permanently but not always flatteringly to her resume is ''moderate.'' If, however, Ruth Ginsburg is now a moderate, it tells you more about how far the mainstream has drifted than how far the judge has drifted.

When the young baton twirler and treasurer of the Go-Getters was growing up in America, that stream was male with hardly a rivulet for women. The law-school dean who invited the nine women in Ginsburg's class of 500 to dinner asked them why they were taking a man's seat. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter denied her a clerkship. Even during her teaching years, the law-school books contained such lines as: ''Land, like woman, was meant to be possessed.''

In the 1970s, Ms. Ginsburg became the leading strategist for the step-by-step assault on legal inequality. Read the front of the T-shirt, please. At the ACLU, she laid the groundwork, chose cases and argued successfully that different treatment meant subordinate treatment. She took the radical position that equal rights weren't radical.

Today, not even Pat Robertson openly argues that women should stick to a separate sphere. It's become possible to be described as a moderate feminist, even a conservative feminist. Read the back of the T-shirt, please.

Some '90s activists worry that the woman who was once on the cutting edge is on the fence or even the other side. They say she ruled too often with conservatives during her tenure on the appeals court. More important, they are anxious because she has criticized the 1973 Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade.

What did the only openly pro-choice nominee we've seen in years say? She believes that abortion rights should have been grounded in women's equality, not in privacy. This is hardly a new argument. Indeed Justice O'Connor hinted at the same thing in the court's last ruling. It doesn't presage a Ginsburg vote to overthrow Roe, but perhaps a willingness to add another, stronger pillar under choice.

The judge also has said that the court got too far out in front of the public and the legislatures. ''Roe v. Wade,'' she is convinced, ''halted a political process that was moving in a reform direction and thereby, I believe, prolonged divisiveness and deferred stable settlement of the issue.'' After 20 years of non-stop abortion wars, she makes a reasonable point.

The woman who comes before the Judiciary Committee is careful, most comfortable with incremental change. She has written approvingly about ''a temperate brand of decision making, one that was not extravagant or divisive.'' That's likely to be her kind of decision making on the Supreme Court. But that does not mean that yesterday's radical has become today's conservative. Or that the person on one decade's legal barricades will be barring the door during the next.

Clarence Thomas picked himself up with other people's bootstraps and went out to prove himself liberated from liberalism. But Ruth Ginsburg picked herself up and started a bootstrap business.

At her announcement she talked about her mother and Title 7. She thanked her husband and the women's movement. She lists her most significant legal work as ''the advancement of equal opportunity and responsibility for women and men in all fields of human endeavor.''

The worriers who see her from the back -- the back of the T-shirt -- won't always see eye to eye. But as Ms. Ginsburg told a gathering not long ago, this too is a part of change: ''The feminist movement today is a house of many gables with rooms enough to accommodate all who have the imagination and determination to think and work in a common cause.''

One of the finest rooms in that house of many gables awaits her at the Supreme Court. If the Senate hands her the key, I suspect that she -- and we -- will find this a very comfortable chamber.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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