Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s law school class of 500 in the late ‘50s included less than 10 women. In photos taken then, as in those taken later of her as a Justice on the Supreme Court, the scarcity of women is startling. She defined her goal in the ‘70s: “to end the closed door era. There were so many things that were off limits to women: policing, firefighting, mining, piloting planes.”
And in 2018, we could add to the list: priests. Or any authoritative, decision-making voice in the Catholic church. Then we wonder why young people aren’t attracted? Former President of Ireland Mary McAleese dramatically attacked the blatant misogyny of the Catholic Church (https://kathyjcoffey.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/0851e-voicesoffaithaddress_marymcaleese8thmarch2018.pdf). Recently, Pope Francis DID appoint three laywomen as consultors to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly women had been only support staff.) So little, so late?
The documentary film “RBG” features a quiet, introverted, brilliant woman who changed the legal system for women in the US. As Ginsburg says of herself: “How fortunate I was to be alive and a lawyer when, for the first time in United States history, it became possible to urge, successfully, before legislatures and courts, the equal-citizenship stature of women and men as a fundamental constitutional principle.” Hildegard of Bingen might’ve termed it the “viriditas” or greening of God in this hard-working woman (and Marty, her wonderfully supportive husband).
The first case Ginsburg argued (and won) before the Supreme Court concerned a woman who’d joined the Air Force. She assumed it was a simple mistake that her husband didn’t receive a housing allowance, as did the wives of all the males around her. What seems so obvious to us today was revolutionary when Ginsburg proposed “that notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers—manmade barriers, certainly not heaven sent.”
Of course, some will insist, the church is no democracy. Yup. We noticed, as endless lines of men in dresses file into synods and conclaves to make the big decisions and elect the pope. Maybe the Church should try the ploy of orchestra auditions. As Ginsburg describes them, “When I was growing up, there were no women in orchestras. Auditioners thought they could tell the difference between a woman playing and a man. Some intelligent person devised a simple solution: Drop a curtain between the auditioners and the people trying out. And, lo and behold, women began to get jobs in symphony orchestras.” Hmmm—drop the curtain, scramble the voices and see whose homily best reflects people’s lived experience?
Departing briefly from Ginsburg, let’s look at other Christian traditions. Nicholas Kristof , writing in the NEW YORK TIMES (3/31/18) quotes the Rev. Serene Jones, the first woman president of New York City’s Union Theological Seminary — where almost 60 percent of the students are now female. “’We’re seeing a new day of understanding of who God is,’ Dr. Jones added. ‘When the people who are representing God, making God present, have female bodies, that inevitably changes the way you think about how God is.’ Dr. Jones argues that over time women will come to dominate religious leadership and that this will powerfully reshape Americans’ understanding of God from stern father to more of a maternal healer and nurturer.”
Ah, how we’ll welcome that shift in Catholicism! From Ginsburg’s own religious tradition comes the legend in progressive Judaism that a man once angrily protested that a woman no more belongs at a synagogue pulpit than an orange belongs on a Seder plate. So these days when celebrating Passover, some Jewish families include an orange on the Seder plate.
Today, 85-year old Ginsburg’s thoughtful, minority opinions begin with two simple but powerful words: “I dissent.” She knows that over time, the minority can become the majority. As she says, “So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today but for tomorrow.”
Thank you, Mrs. Ginsburg. How many of us in different spheres join you in that hope!
All quotes from Ruth Bader Ginsburg