Ruth Bader Ginsburg raises her voice
I once had the privilege of hearing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak in person. She’s a tiny person with huge, almost caricature-scale glasses, but she conveys an unmistakable weightiness in her speech – well-articulated, certain, and slow (surely she is the slowest speaking Jew ever!).
So I was intrigued by an article in yesterday’s New York Times about her recent oral dissents. In a departure from her usual legal style, which tended toward the courteous, she has delivered two strong oral dissents in the past month, one on abortion and one on workplace discrimination. (Never before in her 15 years on the court has she delivered two oral dissents in one term, let alone in one month!).
Of course, she is no newcomer to these issues, having devoted her legal career to assuring equal treatment of women in American law. And as one would expect of someone who is only the second woman to ascend to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg is no shrinking violet, but rather a powerful force who herself confronted and overcame several experiences of discrimination. For example, she was fired from her first job after becoming pregnant; upon graduating from Columbia law school in 1959, she was passed over for employment by every major law firm in New York City; when she became a law professor at Rutgers University in 1963, she received a lower salary than her male counterparts.
But what of this issue of voice? Ginsburg is already one of the most powerful judges in the land, and a woman who has changed social conceptions of gender roles and women’s rights. What does it matter if she delivers her arguments orally or in writing alone, or if her style is collegial or confrontational?
Ginsburg’s vocal approach this term is undoubtedly noticeable and noteworthy because it’s new to her. I would guess it’s also attracted attention because it suggests a provocative style that is typically more acceptable in men than in women. It’s a reminder that we’re still trained to hear people who are louder, and that it’s never too late to overcome convention and try out a new strategy. So I applaud Ginsburg’s bravery in speaking out forcefully as the lone female and minority liberal voice on the Court, and I’m eager to hear what Ginsburg has to say – no matter how slowly she says it.