Ginsburg's different feminism

Susan Estrich

October 05, 1993|By Susan Estrich

YESTERDAY, the first Monday in October, when the U.S. Supreme Court convened its 1993 term, Ruth Bader Ginsburg took her seat as the second woman to serve on the court. Across the country, feminists were cheering. Ironically, many of those celebrating her ascension have utterly rejected her philosophy.

Justice Ginsburg made her reputation as a feminist litigator, representing the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in dozens of cases before the court where she now serves. As a lawyer, she represented men almost as often as women, arguing against rules that provided economic benefits to women at the expense of men.

Many cheering her would not take such cases. As an attorney, Ms. Ginsburg stood foursquare against laws that provide special treatment for women. Many of today's feminist lawyers have constructed elaborate justifications for precisely such special treatment. It is a measure of how far feminism has come that Ms. Ginsburg is the least controversial nominee to the Supreme Court in a decade; but it is also measure of how far feminism has gone astray that the new justice's approach is so casually rejected even by her own supporters. That's unfortunate, because today, it might work.

The sex discrimination cases of the 1970s were brought on behalf of men almost as often as on behalf of women. Justice Ginsburg argued that women should be required to pay alimony to their husbands; that military wives should not be entitled to dependency benefits on more favorable terms than military husbands, and that men must be allowed to collect "mothers'" benefits from Social Security.

Her goal was not simply to open the world of work to women, but also to open the private world of family to men, and in doing so, to free both men and women of the constraints that gender lines impose. Cases were brought not to get a better deal for one group or another, but to get rid of the stereotypes of women as needy and dependent, or of men as aggressive and independent with little interest in parenting.

Not everyone applauded these efforts, at least at the time. Many women who were staying home, and raising families, wondered why they were paying the price of neutral laws. Why should widows lose tax exemptions they needed, and military wives risk health benefits that weren't available to them from private employers, just because these benefits weren't given to men? The law might be paternalistic, but the beneficiaries were women.

Still, there was no turning back. Today, it is difficult for my own law students even to imagine what the world was like before Ms. Ginsburg and her colleagues changed it. These days, no one questions the decisions requiring equality in the military, or in the Social Security system. For her role in these cases, Ms. Ginsburg rightly treated as a hero.

But a great many women have come to question the underlying approach that held that equality means women are the same as men and must be treated the same. Ms. Ginsburg may be the founding mother of feminist lawyers, but a new generation has rejected her spirit -- insisting that women are "different" from men, that the differences should be celebrated, that biology is destiny, that motherhood unites women and that the real challenge is to get a better deal for women. These women don't bring cases on behalf of men.

At first glance, there's enormous appeal to this. It offers a respite in the wars between the "women" at work and the "ladies" at home -- we are united, as women and as mothers. It offers an answer to those who claimed that feminists, like most men, didn't put enough value on what traditional women do. And it seems to conform to the real world. Why spend precious time arguing for parenting leave (as old-line feminists insisted), when men don't want it? Why not get the best deal you can on maternity leave instead? Why give men equal rights to custody of their children, when so many just use it as a bargaining chip in divorce fights against their less economically well-off wives? If you won't let us be partners, let us work part-time.

But uniting women against men is ultimately as short-sighted as the struggle between women and ladies. It is a strategy of second best.

The problem with the equality model of the 1970s was that it accepted the male world as the norm and the boys' rules that govern there as a given. Equality meant being the same as a man. If men worked 70 hours a week, so would women. If men traveled at a moment's notice, so would we. If men played hardball, we'd play harder.

For many women, it just didn't work. The foot soldiers of feminism in the first generation included many women who went to work believing they could have it all, only to discover painfully that changing gender without changing the rules produced lives that were half empty. The "men only" signs came down but the rules of the workplace did not change, and those rules left little room for people who wanted to be both workers and mothers.

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