Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an online-first feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues.
This forum will also appear in print in the Spring 2017 issue of Signs. The Notorious RBG was published in 2015 by Dey Street; My Life on the Road was published in 2015 by Random House.
Gloria Steinem's My Life on the Road and
Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik's Notorious RBG
Feminism at the Intersections
Out There on Their Own
Jude Ellison S. Doyle
Let Us Now Praise Real Icons
Catharine R. Stimpson
Why Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gloria Steinem Still Matter
Telling Women’s Lives
Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
Feminism at the Intersections
Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road is a joyful collection of memories from decades that Steinem spent traveling to advocate, organize, teach, lecture, raise consciousness, and effect change in the world. The evocative storytelling that fills the book moved me to tears on more than one occasion, as when Steinem writes hauntingly of her mother, a woman who struggled with severe mental illnesses and the crushing weight of countless dreams deferred. Steinem recalls asking her mother why she did not leave her husband, Steinem’s father, before Steinem was born in order to pursue a career as a journalist in New York City—something her mother had ached to do as a young woman. Her mother would reply that “it didn’t matter.” Steinem writes, “If I had pressed hard enough, she would add, ‘If I’d left, you never would have been born.’ I never had the courage to say: But you would have been born instead” (12).
I wept when I read this story because I recognized myself in Steinem, and I recognized my mother in Steinem’s mother. I have often wondered what my mother’s life would look like had patriarchy not constrained her—had she not been coerced in ways both subtle and brazen to marry and have children. How many dreams did my mother have to defer in order to achieve a life that was acceptable when measured by the gender norms that prevailed when she was a little girl, an adolescent, and a young woman?
I asked myself whether it was odd for me, a black woman, to recognize myself in Steinem and the feminism that she describes in the book. And the answer is, clearly, no. Black women, Native women, Latinas, lesbians, trans women, poor women, and disabled women are on every page of My Life on the Road. It seems that the visibility of these women—who are so very much unlike Steinem in terms of race, class, ability, sexuality, and gender conformity—reflects Steinem’s willingness to learn from them and, crucially, to reflect their experiences in the feminism that she embraces and teaches. Indeed, Steinem writes, “Racism and sexism are intertwined … and cannot be uprooted separately” (50). Here, I had scribbled in the margins of my book: “What happened?!” What happened such that legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw could write, completely justifiably and accurately, in 1991, “The failure of feminism to interrogate race means that the resistance strategies of feminism will often replicate and reinforce the subordination of people of color”? How did a feminism that, as Steinem seems to claim, recognized in the 1960s and 1970s that “racism and sexism are intertwined” (50) become a feminism that failed to interrogate race in 1991? Is Steinem a revisionist? That is, is she writing a history of feminism that never was? If she is not, then at what point did “feminism” transform into a thing that could be accused of ignoring the experiences of women of color decades after Steinem began her work? More importantly, what would feminism look like today if the awareness of the interconnectedness of systems of oppression—an awareness that Steinem conceptualizes as residing at the heart of feminism—never had to be introduced to feminist theory as a corrective in the 1990s? Would we now exist in a world in which “feminism,” “antiracism,” “anticlassism,” and “antiheteronormatity” were synonyms for the same effort? I imagine that the world would be more just if this were so.
In an interesting contrast, Notorious RBG recounts the life and times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg through a lens that seems to be constituted by the feminism against which Crenshaw and other feminists of color rebelled. No attention is paid to the fact that Justice Ginsburg was likely able to blaze the trails she blazed because she has always had class privilege, she is a straight, cisgender female, and she is not a person of color. Consider in this vein that the title of chapter 3 is “Stereotypes of a Lady Misunderstood,” and it (like all of the chapter titles) is a variation on a lyric written by the late Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a the Notorious B.I.G. The original lyric, interestingly, is “stereotype of a black male misunderstood.” Biggie recites the lyric in a song that tells of his rise from indigent obscurity to wealthy renown—a song in which Biggie seems very much aware that his blackness, his maleness, and his poverty are central elements in the story of how he became the person he was as an adult. It is interesting that Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, the authors of Notorious RBG, translated Biggie’s “black male” into “lady”—not “white lady” or “Jewish lady.” Why was it acceptable to delete Ginsburg’s race and/or religion? I fear that it is because of Carmon’s and Knizhnik’s lack of awareness that those elements are central to Ginsburg’s story.
Interestingly, one might make a similar observation about Steinem: Steinem was likely able to blaze the trails that she blazed because she, like Ginsburg, has always enjoyed the privileges of class, sexuality, ability, gender conformity, and race. However, what I gathered from My Life on the Road is that Steinem recognizes this. She recognizes that her privilege allowed her to become a successful—indeed, legendary—advocate for women. However, Carmon and Knizhnik seem not to realize that Ginsburg’s privilege along axes of identity other than sex is essential to explaining her success. The result is a book that seems anachronistic—because its feminism is antiquated. The book’s appropriation of hip-hop imagery and discourse does not save it from feeling old-fashioned—like a quaint blast from the past. In the immortal words of Biggie, “If you don’t know, now you know.”
I asked myself whether it was odd for me, a black woman, to recognize myself in Steinem and the feminism that she describes in the book. And the answer is, clearly, no.
Khiara M. Bridges is professor of law and associate professor of anthropology at Boston University. Her research concerns race, class, reproductive rights, and the intersection of the three. She is the author of Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011) and “The Poverty of Privacy Rights” (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, forthcoming).
Out There on Their Own
Jude Ellison S. Doyle
Legacy is a privilege. Two recent books, Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road and Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhik deal with the legacies of women who had to hack out a place for themselves in a world I can hardly recognize.
By the time I was born, in 1982, feminism had blossomed, borne fruit, and had then very nearly been chainsawed down by Ronald Reagan. The fact that my mother worked was so unremarkable that I never imagined things could be otherwise. Women who divorced, or raised children on their own, were likewise common. By twelve, I knew the phrases “domestic violence,” “date rape,” “sexual harassment;” I never had to wonder if they were crimes, or wait for someone to give them a name. There was never a time when I did not understand that women could be discriminated against on the basis of sex. I was told it didn’t happen any more—a lie—but that’s not the same as being told it couldn’t happen, or had never happened at all.
None of this was true for Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s true because of them. Steinem had to sit in a car with Gay Talese as he explained to Saul Bellow that “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl” (138–39). Ginsburg was asked by a professor why she was taking up space at law school—a male lawyer probably needed the spot—and had to explain that it might help her be more understanding of her lawyer husband.
Their later accomplishments—as one of second-wave feminism’s most visible advocates, or as the most admired justice on the Supreme Court—are well known. But what stands out for me are these stories, about a Gloria and a Ruth who were my own age or younger. Without a history of feminist advocacy at their backs. Without even a name for what was happening to them. I’ve gotten similar remarks in my day, maybe worse ones, but I always had feminism to help me understand and combat them. These girls were out there on their own.
So it feels ungenerous to carp at the legacy they gave us. And yet: Though Steinem and Ginsburg both insisted on working with feminists of color, it’s their names—the names of white, professionally successful women—that we remember. In a series of choices that I can only describe as unforgivable, Steinem chooses to make the one and only transgender woman in her memoir an unnamed cab driver, and to describe this woman as a lascivious pervert and borderline rapist who forces Steinem to discuss lingerie against her will (83–84).
I grew up in a world where second-wave feminism had profoundly and permanently altered our ideas about gender. It was a blessing. But that blessing was (to put it mildly) unequally distributed. In 2016, the woman who has more in common with Gloria Steinem than anyone else, strangely, is the trans girl driving the cab. That girl, too, is dealing with problems we’re still finding names for. That girl, too, is trying to change the world around her. And that girl—much like Gloria Steinem, in her day—doesn’t have a Gloria Steinem she can depend on. She is still out there. Still being made to fight on her own.
What stands out for me are these stories, about a Gloria and a Ruth who were my own age or younger. Without a history of feminist advocacy at their backs. Without even a name for what was happening to them.
Jude Ellison S. Doyle is a writer who lives in New York.
Let Us Now Praise Real Icons
Catharine R. Stimpson
The icons of second-wave feminism were often greatly talented and greatly tormented, in part because their talents were too explosive for their world. They had to implode, dying young, the poet Sylvia Plath at thirty-one, the musician Janis Joplin at twenty-seven. The awe they inspired was inseparable from anger at their world, grief at their loss, and a fear that their abbreviated lives might symbolize ours.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gloria Steinem are also icons. They are of Plath’s generation: she born in 1932, Ginsburg in 1933, Steinem in 1934. However, like another formidable icon of this generation, Toni Morrison, born in 1931, they have endured. They have compelled the world to accept, respect, and often revere their brilliance. The awe they inspire is inseparable from gratitude for the fruits of their longevity. Because of that fertility, these books also contribute richly to feminist history since World War II.
As feminists, Ginsburg and Steinem shared a double goal: to end gender discrimination and to create gender equality. Yet their vision of “equality feminism” is neither cramped nor confined but spacious enough for global struggles against injustice. Ginsburg chose the law, believing in the “constitutional principle of the equal citizenship stature of men and women” (Notorious RBG, 43). Steinem became a writer and an “itinerant feminist organizer” (My Life on the Road, 39). As she was starting her career as a public speaker, she, together with African American women friends, discovered an intense interest in the idea that “each person’s shared humanity and individual uniqueness far outweighs any label” (47). Both women were shrewd and self-conscious about their methods, Ginsburg devoted to incremental change, Steinem to the creation of talking circles, in which telling and listening to stories builds political movements from the ground up.
As icons, they have different auras. Indeed, as Ginsburg has become a popular cult figure, her picture on coffee mugs, her aura has evolved. Part of the deliciousness of Notorious RBG is the combined wit of naming her after a major rapper, the Notorious B.I.G., with meticulous insights into her legal achievements. Yet both women, as icons, share crucial characteristics. They have an unslacking capacity for hard work and tireless devotion to their causes. Morally, they have immense integrity, dignity, courage, and goodness of heart. Capable of love and friendship, they are not cruel warriors. Psychologically, they have developed usable tactics for dealing with their anger. As they have helped to change the conditions that have angered them and others, they themselves have changed. These are kinetic, not static, icons. They seem far stronger than they were as younger women. Ginsburg has become a fierce dissenting justice on a conservative Supreme Court. Steinem has become more rooted and more spiritual, discovering the “timeless and true” in Native American Indian Country (217). Her witnessing of the life and death of her friend Wilma Mankiller, chief of the Cherokee Nation, is as poignant as those she has written about her parents.
Crucially, despite the fame of these two icons, these books are about the need to honor one’s debts and to rebuke any crude sense of entitlement. Ginsburg speaks of the importance of her mother, who died the day before Ginsburg graduated from high school and who wanted her to succeed in life. “So that’s what I did,” she says (28). Steinem dedicates her book to a London doctor who helped a twenty-two-year-old American, on her way to India, to get a largely illegal abortion. He asked her to promise that she would do what she wanted with her life. Now, decades later, she writes, “Dear Dr. Sharpe…I’ve done the best I could with my life.”
Notorious RBG includes a hand-written letter from Steinem to Ginsburg, on Ms. Magazine stationery with its now-familiar “Ms.” logo. It begins “Dear Ruth,” thanks her for a book and for her presence at a conference, and ends, “You always make me very, very proud. And you change minds. Best, Gloria” (68).
No mean-spirited iconoclasts are needed here.
Crucially, despite the fame of these two icons, these books are about the need to honor one’s debts and to rebuke any crude sense of entitlement.
Catharine R. Stimpson is University Professor and Dean Emerita of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University. She is also a member of the affiliated faculty of New York University Law School and New York University Abu Dhabi. Her most recent publication is Critical Terms for the Study of Gender, coedited with Gilbert Herdt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014). She is also chair of the board of Scholars at Risk.
Why Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gloria Steinem Still Matter
“Feminism has changed, especially on campus, and among the left-leaning,” wrote Molly Roberts in the Politico article “Why Millennials Don’t Care That Hillary Clinton Is a Woman.” “The fact is, among certain segments of the liberal millennial population, Clinton’s gender is simply not enough to make her a groundbreaker. She might be a woman, but she is also white, and well-off, and straight. If she were black, or gay, or poor—as well as female, some young liberals might be more inclined to vote for her,” Roberts concluded.
And yet within this embattled context two feminists who are almost fifteen years older than Clinton and came of age during the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s endure as icons—Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and writer Gloria Steinem—each of whom is the subject of a best-selling book. Despite the differences in genre, the biography Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steinem’s memoir My Life of the Road are as much deconstructions of the past as they are mediations about the present state of feminism.
In this sense, these books are not simply attempts to move Ginsburg and Steinem beyond their status as cultural icons and to show how their journeys to selfhood and sisterhood were influenced by the very real debates of their time. They also show how Steinem and Ginsburg shape the debates of our own time. In the case of Notorious RBG, #millennial authors Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, a journalist and lawyer respectively, achieve this through literary sampling—they mix the arc of Ginsburg’s personal, professional, and judicial development with hip-hop lyrics, graffiti font, illustrations, timelines, recipes, and even a workout plan. By doing so, they fill in the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr meme that went viral in 2013 with a fully formed image of Ginsburg, who is at once singular and multitudinous, reserved and radical, collaborative and contentious, gradual and groundbreaking. By speaking to and advocating on behalf of so many groups of Americans, she emerges as both the everywoman and the every feminist.
Steinem achieves this plurality differently. Though each chapter in My Life on the Road is marked by a photograph of Steinem and an intimate family member or friend, the bulk of the memoir is her travel adventures, both local and global. For Steinem, the “road” is not simply an unfamiliar place or people, as often detailed in the road memoir made famous by Jack Kerouac, but an infinite space of feminist possibilities. Each of her varied destinations is a site of political awakening or communities in which she has witnessed the most transformative and sustained political organizing. Steinem makes no discernable distinctions between these two spaces. This is partly because she does not differentiate between the individual and collective but also because it helps her achieve her larger goal of revealing how own coming into feminism was shaped by the intersectional politics of and her friendships with African American activists like Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Florynce Kennedy, and Alice Walker as well as Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. In this sense, she offers a corrective to her own iconicity and by extension, to the willful forgetting of women of color within the popular memory of second-wave feminism.
To sit with these women’s lives is to engage in some very important questions about the future feminism. How do white feminists unlearn racial privilege? What does real interracial feminist solidarity look like? Can you really change a system from within? And how do you utterly transform the roots of gender and racial inequality? Ginsburg and Steinem have different strategies and answers to these questions, but one thing is clear: they more than reveal that the feminism of yesterday is as relevant today as it ever was.
To sit with these women’s lives is to engage in some very important questions about the future feminism. How do white feminists unlearn racial privilege? What does real interracial feminist solidarity look like?
Salamishah Tillet is associate professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination and Gloria Steinem: A Kindles Single Interview and is currently working on a book on the civil rights musician Nina Simone. She is also the cofounder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to empower youth and end violence against girls and women.
Telling Women’s Lives
In the not-too-distant future there will be memoirs and biographies of women whose entire lives have unfolded in an era when feminism was squarely—if controversially—on the national agenda. Whether this will affect how the stories of women’s lives are told remains to be seen, but we aren’t there yet. And that may be a clue to the popular fascination with Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at this specific cultural moment. Still going strong in their eighties, these women embody the “before” and “after” of recent American feminism, allowing us to take measure of what feminism has meant to individual women and also to gauge what feminism has accomplished over the past five decades. Their continued engagement and passion also remind us of how much remains to be done.
Both Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsburg belong to the generation of women who had to be twice as good as comparable men just to get their foot inside the door. They were, and they did, in journalism and law, respectively. What was unique about their careers, and what may explain their enduring appeal as role models and popular heroines, is that their commitment to feminism offered them new possibilities for life work that combined engaged activism with professional advancement. In the process of changing their own lives, they changed our lives as well.
Gloria Steinem estimates she has spent at least half of the last four decades on the road, and she uses her journeys -- broadly defined and ranging widely over time and space -- as the organizing concept of her memoir. Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik also eschew a traditional narrative, telling Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life story through sassy commentaries about her legal opinions, an illustrated description of her workout routine, her husband’s favorite recipe (he was the cook in the family), and a wonderful array of artifacts from popular culture. As different as apples and oranges, each book manages to be a very good match to its subject.
Steinem has been in front of the media for most of her adult life. She is a much quoted (“This is what forty looks like” and “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament” are two personal favorites) and widely respected public figure. Ginsburg’s emergence as the Notorious RBG occurred much later and is a bit more surprising. But there is no denying that with her lacy jabot, big glasses, and pulled-back hair, she rocks.
Both women would be quick to point out that media images often fail to capture the complexities of living contemporary feminist lives, but that has not stopped a broad public from embracing them as women of deep substance and a passion for social change that happily coexists with their stylish popular appeal. As Steinem wrote to Ginsburg in an undated note, “You always make me very, very proud, and you change minds” (Notorious RBG, 68). That’s how I feel about both of these remarkable women.
In the process of changing their own lives, they changed our lives as well.
Susan Ware is the author and editor of numerous books on twentieth-century US history, including Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports and Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism. She serves as general editor of the American National Biography and has a long association with the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.
I’m honored by and have learned from the thoughtful responses of the five readers who have written about My Life on the Road for Signs. They are a great combination of two friends and colleagues, Kate Stimpson and Salamishah Tillet—who are more likely to know what I was trying to say—and three others, Khiara Bridges, Jude Ellison S. Doyle, and Susan Ware—who enter this book as a world on its own, as most readers would.
I have to say first that I am touched by Khiara’s parallel of her feelings about her own mother’s unlived life with mine about my mother’s. This leap over barriers of race and age is a reward that writers hope for, and so is her sense that “Black women, Native women, Latinas, lesbians, trans women, poor women, and disabled women are on every page.” I know very well that each of us can only speak for ourselves, yet I also know that humans are actually linked, not ranked, and that a circle, not a hierarchy, was the first and by far the longest-lasting human organizing principle. That’s why I’m grateful to Kate for understanding and repeating what I find to be the lesson of the road: “each person’s shared humanity and individual uniqueness far outweighs any label” (47).
That’s also why I share Khiara’s mystification about why feminism, the women’s movement, women’s liberation—whatever we want to call diverse attempts to defeat male control of reproduction and thus of females—has been so often characterized as “white and middle class.” It seems to me obvious that racism—or caste or class or any hierarchy that begins at birth—cannot be perpetuated in the long run without controlling reproduction and thus women’s bodies. Thus racism are sexism are intertwined and cannot be defeated separately. Yet we still see on the web terms like “white feminism,” something that is self-defeating at best and a contradiction in terms at worst. If feminism doesn’t include all females – in an equal humanity that men may also support – it isn’t feminism.
There are many answers to this mystery, but I agree with Salamishah that the most obvious is this: “the willful forgetting of women of color within the popular memory of second-wave feminism.”
Certainly, I learned feminism disproportionately from black women. It was Fannie Lou Hamer who told me in an interview that she had been sterilized without her knowledge or permission when she entered a hospital for other reasons, and at the same time, white women had to have two children and their husbands’ permission in order to be sterilized. What could be a more obvious example of the racist control of women's bodies? Also, the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission was addressing only race discrimination until Aileen Hernandez, its first female and African American member, insisted on including sex discrimination; the first legal actions against sexual harassment were brought by African American women; and as far as I know, the first feminist analysis of social policy was done by the National Welfare Rights Organization. Examples go on and on. This leading role of black women is also true in the aggregate. A Harris Poll, the first national poll of women’s opinions on issues of equality, showed that African American women were about twice as likely to support a women’s movement as were white women.
To undo this, we need to reverse how it happened. Black studies and women’s studies grew up separately, and each tended to underrepresent women of color. Academia overrepresents people who can get books published, though one only has to look at, say, the gay and lesbian movement starting at Stonewall, or the Black Lives Matter movement now, to understand that books come out of movements more than the other way around. Even now, sexual assaults on campus get far more media attention than do those in urban neighborhoods, despite such feminist efforts as Salamishah’s A Long Walk Home. The slow increase of mostly white women at the corporate level gets way more coverage than does the fast increase of mostly women of color in our prison industrial complex, usually for nonviolent drug-related charges. Finally, I fear that some white women, seeking to exempt themselves from charges of a systemic racism, criticize the women’s movement as being way more white than it was in reality, thus becoming racist by disappearing women of color from history.
Also, we shouldn’t overlook a status quo that has always benefited from dividing subversive coalitions. It took a foreigner, Gunnar Myrdal, to write long ago that both racism and sexism were necessary to create the unpaid or underpaid labor on which this country depended. It was amazing that in the abolitionist and suffragist era, black women, black men, and white women worked together, when any contact between black men and white women was regarded as a crime and was more reliably punished than arson or murder. It’s always seemed to me that dividing this majority coalition was the reason for allowing black men the vote first, then using violence, literacy tests, and poll taxes to limit even that. I will always love Sojourner Truth for saying that we should stay together. I think we need to learn from her now by keeping our efforts linked, and directing them toward where the power is.
The one painful part of this response is Sady’s belief that I wrongly portrayed a male taxi driver whom I later met as a woman taxi driver. I was reporting what happened, and I’m pretty sure that if the driver were to read my description, she would find it accurate. I was representing the diversity of people who share with my father a need for the freedom of the road, not one person who typifies a community – which I doubt any one person can do. Should this driver pick up my book, she would find not only an account of my congratulating her at the time but also my celebration in another chapter of progressing “from gay and lesbian groups forbidden to meet on campus to transgender and transsexual students who challenge all gender binaries” (99).
However, criticism is to be learned from. I discovered that the campus reference had been missed in the index, and I corrected the next printing. I also changed the last line of the anecdote to put the weight on my response rather than on the driver: “But hearing the same voice, I wonder just how different I would have felt had I known I was talking to a woman, not a man. Such is the power of gender.”
Altogether, this six-way exchange has been a conversation I am grateful for and hope will continue. I know that, as Alice Walker taught us, writing anything is like stepping into a flowing river. You have given me the gift of feeling mostly understood in the midst of change – and what could be better than that?
I learned feminism disproportionately from black women.
Gloria Steinem is a writer, lecturer, editor, and feminist activist. In 1972, she cofounded Ms. magazine, and she remained one of its editors for fifteen years. In 1968, she helped found New York Magazine, where she was a political columnist and wrote feature articles. Her books include the bestsellers Revolution from Within, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Moving Beyond Words, Marilyn: Norma Jeane, and As if Women Matter (published in India). In 2013, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
We dedicated our book “to the women on whose shoulders we stand,” so we appreciate that the thoughtful respondents tackled Notorious RBG in that same intergenerational spirit. “Crucially, despite the fame of these two icons,” Catharine Stimpson writes, “these books are about the need to honor one’s debts and to rebuke any crude sense of entitlement.” Indeed, as we celebrated the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who herself has a finely tuned sense of giving credit, we were conscious of those debts.
We recognize that we risk the problem of the single story in celebrating one woman, who is singular but who has always seen herself as part of a movement. Or, as Jude Doyle notes, “Though Steinem and Ginsburg both insisted on working with feminists of color, it’s their names—the names of white, professionally successful women—that we remember.” We intended in our book to add a few names for readers to remember and to situate RBG, and the book itself, within a larger history and movement.
Some of that was done by highlighting the ways in which progress for women was not equally shared and writing back into history the women who shaped it. Our timeline includes the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment but also highlights its unfilled promise of suffrage for all women. It was important for us to tell the story of Pauli Murray, the queer black woman who had first dreamed up the equal protection arguments Ginsburg later successfully made before the Supreme Court. Ginsburg added Murray’s name as a coauthor to her first Supreme Court brief, though Murray did not directly work on it. We also commissioned work from talented feminist artists like Maria “TooFly” Castillo, creator of a women’s graffiti collective, and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, whose bold Stop Telling Women to Smile street art inspired us. We sought, and received, permission from the estate of the Notorious B.I.G. to quote and, in some cases, riff on his lyrics for the chapter titles.
Salamishah Tillet asks, “What does real interracial feminist solidarity look like? Can you really change a system from within?” To these important questions, we offer the following attempts that inspire us: As the first tenured woman at Columbia Law School, Ginsburg arrived on campus and successfully prevented the administration from eliminating the jobs of the “maids,” most of whom were women of color. As a cofounder of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project (ACLU WRP), Ginsburg wrote that the project would fight for the rights of women in prison and in the military and take on “discriminatory confinement of girls in juvenile institutions because of sexual promiscuity” (59).
The WRP also promised to fight for “the right to be voluntarily sterilized … and the right not to be involuntarily sterilized” (59), a necessary reminder of the painful history of reproductive injustice imposed upon countless women of color. Ginsburg helped bring the first federal case to challenge the practice, on behalf of Nial Ruth Cox, a young North Carolina mother who had been coercively sterilized on penalty of her family losing welfare benefits. The ACLU’s brief, cosigned by Ginsburg, said the state had targeted Cox “because she is a woman, because she is black,” and “as a method of punishing women who bear children out of wedlock” (75). Later, prefiguring some of the concerns articulated by reproductive justice activists, Ginsburg brought to the Supreme Court a case on behalf of a pregnant Air Force nurse who wanted to carry to term.
To Khiara Bridges’s point, we do wish we had done more in the book to spell out how Ginsburg’s whiteness and later-in-life class privilege smoothed her way even as her gender, religion, and motherhood made it more turbulent. Ginsburg herself has done so: When she is compared to Justice Thurgood Marshall, she often replies that though she learned from his legal strategy, “My life was never in danger. His was.” But we think the most powerful testimony to “interracial feminist solidarity” is the story told in the first chapter, of Ginsburg’s week of fierce dissent, when she earned her “Notorious RBG” nickname. She used her high-placed role in the system to protest against three separate majority opinions that gutted remedies to racial discrimination: laws on employment discrimination, affirmative action policies, and most dramatically of all, the Voting Rights Act.
All of this is why we agree with Tillet’s assessment that Ginsburg’s and Steinem’s stories “more than reveal that the feminism of yesterday is as relevant today as it ever was.” We can always listen more and try not to make the same mistakes as yesterday. But we also have a lot to learn about how it’s been done.
We can always listen more and try not to make the same mistakes as yesterday. But we also have a lot to learn about how it’s been done.
Irin Carmon is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Notorious RBG and a national reporter at MSNBC and NBC News. She is also a Visiting Fellow in the Program for the Study of Reproductive Justice at Yale Law School.
Shana Knizhnik is the creator of the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr, coauthor of the New York Times bestselling Notorious RBG book, and current law clerk for Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Dolores Sloviter. She graduated cum laude from New York University School of Law in 2015.