Weapons of choice
The clock is ticking. I’m staring out the window, unable to settle to work. I get up to make coffee, wash a few dishes. Sit back down. Hands hovering above this keyboard, trying to summon coherent thoughts. Clotted clouds muddy the sun. The countdown ticks on. Time won’t be argued to a halt.
My cat jumps onto the chair next to me, and I scratch her neck. She arcs her head back, her eyes go half-mast. Sometimes I envy her snug, cloistered life. But wait, isn’t a constrained life essentially what I’m despairing about? Before we adopted her, the vets at the shelter confiscated her ability to get pregnant and have more babies. That’s not so different from those trying to force pregnancy and childbirth on me, is it?
The clock has sometimes been in the background of my awareness. Tick. Tick. Tock. I overlooked it for months and years while life ticked by. But recently, when I read Alito’s leaked draft opinion condemning Roe v. Wade, the ticking instantly got louder. Our marches, our signs, wearing pink pussy hats didn’t change anything. We don’t have the power to stop them turning back the clock, launching women into the land before time, when your unintended pregnancy stuck you between a knife and a wall. Tick. Tick. Tock.
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, I hunched over this screen for days, drinking in her voice, hearing her arguments until they were pinging around my head, trying to drown out the clock. Any minute now the buzzer will go off, game over, kaboom, and we’ll be bombed back to the middle of the last century—when women could vote, get a job, pay taxes; but with an unwanted pregnancy, her only choice was an unwanted birth or illegal abortion, often unsafe, for many all but inaccessible. Tick. Tick. Tick.
The clouds disengage, blow apart, form new alliances. Now I feel water closing over our heads. I mean, at my age, after decades supporting reproductive choice, I’m a little old for an abortion, but if they can take my choice, they can take anybody’s. And if they can take a right we’ve held for almost fifty years, they can take anything they want.
Emotions tumble like clothes in a dryer. How can we defend ourselves? Although we outnumber them, they now have the power. Tears surge—I never thought they could take our choice away.
It’s happening. The tick, tick, ticking is so overwhelming I almost don't hear the knocking.
Opening my front door, you could knock me sideways with a spoon: a tiny old lady, a vibrant shawl, big outdated glasses, my hero in the flesh.
"Welcome, Madam Justice!” I help her across the threshold. “This is—” I can hardly talk, “I’m so honored, your honor. I’ve longed to speak with you in these recent dire days!”
I shoo my cat off a chair, hide a stray chocolate wrapper in my pocket and offer her the seat next to where I’m sitting now, overlooking white clematis and a sliver of Puget Sound.
She smiles. “You can call me Ruth.”
“Oh, thank you! And would you please call me ‘dear?’” We’re about the same height so in spite of her towering reputation, this feels surprisingly comfortable.
“How do you like your coffee," I ask. "Black? Cream or sugar?”
Black and strong, she tells me. Crossing her ankles, she’s deceptively demure.
I’m chatting with Ruth, hearing her actual words! She doesn’t begin talking about abortion, as I thought she might; not directly. She wants to talk about her mother, “The bravest, strongest person I have known.”
I set my best coffee cup next to her and fill it, offering biscotti I'd saved in my freezer. Ruth shrugs out of her shawl; I help her drape it over the chair and sit down.
“She was unusual for her time because she stressed the importance of being independent.”
“You’ve talked often about your mother’s example,” I gush, a little breathless. Cecelia Ginsburg witnessed feminism’s first wave some hundred years ago, but worked as a garment worker to pay for Ruth’s brother’s university education.
“One of her proudest memories was marching in the suffrage parades to get the vote for women,” she says. Her earrings shimmy when she turns her head.
My own mother, born the year before Ruth, barely went to college and stayed home to raise a houseful of girls.
"She had two messages for me in my growing up years. ‘Be a lady.’ By that she didn’t mean wear, as I do,” she raises one hand, “fancy lace gloves. She meant don’t give way to emotions that just sap your energy and don’t get you anyplace, and that included anger.” In a high-necked silk blouse, embroidered and tailored to her petite frame—unlike me in slacker yoga pants—she sits like a lady.
“And the other was to be independent. Be your own person,” she says.
Now that I’ve caught my breath, I look around. My living room is presentable, at least. Colorful. When my chairs got ratty, I slipcovered them with mix and match fabrics. Nina Simone—that’s my cat—turns her back on us, settling on the floor by the windows. A vase torches rainbows across the wall.
"When I talk about my mother, I sometimes ask the question: what is the difference between a bookkeeper in the garment district, and a supreme court justice?” A sideways glance, her sly smile. “One generation.” Her delivery, so familiar to so many, is measured.
“And your mother secretly saved for your college fund out of the weekly money from your father?” I ask. “She really believed in you.”
"I went to law school when women were less than three percent of lawyers in the country; today, they are fifty percent,” she reminisces. “The changes have been enormous. And they've just—they've gone much too far [to be] going back." Her smile holds determined satisfaction. In 1960, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter rejected her for a clerkship because of her gender, even with a Harvard Law dean’s recommendation.
“Well, you had a lot to do with that!” I say. “You played an essential role in ‘second-wave’ feminism—in equity for women.”
"Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation." Her tone is pungent like vinegar. Ruth doesn’t sit quite straight anymore, so many years she’s been sticking her neck out for the have-nots. Head-down is now her permanent posture. Her head, heavy with that amazing brain.
A squirrel scoots along my deck rail and freezes. My cat sits up, green eyes lasered on him; the squirrel darts into my potted Fraser fir.
Ruth goes on, “I counted my great good fortune to have been alive and law-trained in the 1960s and 1970s, when President Roosevelt’s principles were vibrant in our land, inspiring the Civil Rights Movement and the movement of recognition for the equal-citizenship stature of men and women.”
Afternoon brilliance slants in. The Weeping Alaskan Cedar across the street flutters its fingers, its top lopped off under a power line.
“People think of the 1960s as the great equal rights leap forward,” I say. “And while my mom was no ‘women’s libber,’ she did get me on the pill. In my trajectory, though, I had to reckon with my own ingrained ladylike habits before finally catching the women’s rights wave.”
“I don’t say women’s rights—I say the constitutional principle of the equal citizenship stature of men and women.” As always, her language is precise.
“Okay, point taken!” I laugh.
"I see my advocacy as part of an effort to make the equality principle everything the founders would have wanted it to be if they weren't held back by the society in which they lived and particularly the shame of slavery.” Her right hand motions for emphasis when she talks. I revere how her stand is rooted in the broader fight for justice.
“I don’t think my efforts would have succeeded had it not been for the women’s movement that was reviving in the United States and more or less all over the world at the time."
“Okay,” I say, “I won’t argue whether your work was the chicken or the egg in the ‘60s women’s movement—”
She gives me that chin-down steady gaze, as if saying, are you calling me a chicken, dear?
We both giggle. “In any case, without you on the bench the fight would have been much tougher and taken much longer.” I made her laugh! It’s unbelievable that I’m having this conversation.
But she wants to tell me a story. “Once Justice O’Connor was questioning counsel at oral argument. I thought she was done, so I asked a question, and Sandra said: ‘Just a minute, I’m not finished.’ So I apologized to her and she said, ‘It’s okay, Ruth. The guys do it to each other all the time, they step on each other’s questions.’”
I nod with vigor—being interrupted by a man because his words are more important, that totally flips my switch.
“And then there appeared an item in USA Today, and the headline was something like ‘Rude Ruth Interrupts Sandra.'”
I hoot, “Ah, damn, is there any hope?” Tickled to hear her unguarded chuckle, I sit here, composed as can be, as if this happens all the time, but inside I’m like a frog in a sock.
“It’s an unconscious bias… that instinctively when a man speaks, he will be listened to, where people will not expect the woman to say anything of value,” she says. “But all of the women in my generation have had, time and again, that experience where you say something at a meeting, and nobody makes anything of it. And maybe half an hour later, a man makes the identical point, and people react to it and say, ‘Good idea.’ That, I think, is a problem that persists.”
“It’s the same for the generations that followed you,” I say. “I quit my last corporate job just a few years ago and it was no different.”
“I ask no favor for my sex,” she parrots herself. “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
“More coffee?” I ask. She points at her cup.
“Well,” I say, returning to my thread. “The ‘60s are seen as an era of equal rights progress on race. Free speech. But the ‘liberal’ Warren Court’s record on gender wasn’t catching up.”
Ruth says those justices ruled against gender equality because they “didn’t understand barriers that women faced as discriminatory.” I’m in love with her proper, deliberate voice and how her blue eyes betray humor.
“They were ‘Ginsburned!’” I grin, mimicking the Saturday Night Live parody. “But those put-down attitudes impacted me. I experienced some of that unfairness in my working life that you did, no doubt to a lesser degree.” One of just nine women at Harvard Law School in 1956, the dean asked Ruth and her fellow females why they occupied desks that could be filled by men.
“The experiences you had, they’re still making women mad,” I go on. “But from a young age, I had a hard time accessing anger in a way that was effective. So, I’ve long been a peacemaker, a diplomat.” Anger was unacceptable for the children in my family.
She tilts her head, thoughtful. “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you."
Here’s another reason I so admire her. Like me, Ruth had to figure out how to put her intensity to work, but she did it politely to ensure she would be heard.
“When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade,” she says.
“Well, anger was not inappropriate. Fifty years ago, the fight was aimed at equality in jobs, education, child rearing. And abortion!” I feel myself ratcheting up. “And look how far we haven’t come.”
Extending her lacework-gloved hand, she says, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Plenty of women disagree with her there, but tactically speaking perhaps she’s right. I get up and walk to the window, open it a crack. Crows squawk, harassing the doves nesting in my gutters. Rosemary and sage wave from their pot outside.
“Okay, then in 1970, fifty years after the 19th Amendment graciously granted women the right to vote”—if I have trouble expressing anger, sarcasm is no problem—"50,000 feminists marched in New York, in Berkeley where I lived part time, and elsewhere.”
The Women’s Strike for Equality was a national work stoppage intended to persuade the media on the power of feminism—women suspended housework to spotlight the unequal distribution of domestic labor. “The motto: ‘Don’t Iron While the Strike is Hot!’”
“And the first legal victories were your groundbreaking cases” I continue. Ruth argued six cases before the Supreme Court against laws that treated men and women differently and, notoriously, won five. Her success as an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer arguing Reed v. Reed in ‘71 was the first time the Court agreed that the Fourteenth Amendment’s “equal protection” guarantee applied to women.
“And then Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973 of course.” Now we’ve arrived at my top of mind.
“My aim was to break down the stereotypical view of men’s roles and women’s roles,” she says, one hand chopping at air.
“But then, feminism prompted a backlash—an equal and opposite reaction,” I say. Those were disenchanting days, when conservatives feared the shake-up of old gender roles. “Remember Phyllis Schlafly, crusading against the Equal Rights Amendment? She defended our right to stay home and vacuum!”
Ruth is nodding. “Right.”
“Ronald Reagan calling feminists ‘man-haters.’ Then there was Anita Hill and her doomed sexual harassment testimony against soon-to-be…”
“Justice Clarence Thomas….”
“…and witness the long rise of the religious right poking holes in abortion and LGBTQ+ protections.” I sound strident.
“The side that wants to take the choice away from women and give it to the state, they’re fighting a losing battle,” Ruth placates.
“Well…” It’s impossible not to be heartsick now.
"The number of women who have come forward as a result of the #MeToo movement has been astonishing,” she goes on. “My hope is not just that it is here to stay, but that it is as effective for the woman who works as a maid in a hotel as it is for Hollywood stars." After decades on the highest court, Justice Ginsburg saw the rise of “third-wave” feminism, which grew partly out of second-wave failures—its primary focus on upper middle-class white women.
I drop back onto my chair. “I must say, with countless others, I’m indebted for your mettle, Ruth, pushing back on the conservative majority.” Then with a sideways smile, “including your pal Tony, appointed by Reagan I think.”
She tilts her head. "One of the reasons I was so fond of Justice Scalia is he had an infectious sense of humor… I disagreed with a lot of what he said, but I was charmed by the way he said it."
“Well, he didn’t do you or I any favors,” I grumble. “
“Some of my favorite opinions are dissenting opinions,” she chides me. “I will not live to see what becomes of them, but I remain hopeful.”
Hope. I want to kiss her farsighted, no-nonsense head. Hope points to the future; it calls up belief that a different outcome is possible. And it’s not blind optimism, believing change is inevitable despite the evidence. No, hope suckles motivation. It sees the ongoing herculean struggle; it knows our mission, reproductive choice for women, is worthy and, eventually, achievable. Even if today, we’re pushing back an impending wall of water.
And now I see it. The overruling minority, they want me to give up, give in to hopelessness and quit pushing.
Ruth must hear my thoughts—she settles her tolerant old hand on my arm.
“Without doubt,” I say, “I take for granted the progress I’ve benefitted from, but the headway is glacial.” Then, resuscitating an old gripe, “Now, fifty years after that Strike for Equality march, women are only paid eighty-two percent of what men are. And of course, the gap’s much bigger for women of color.”
I draw an elastic breath. “I’m not saying there’s been no improvement—the women-men pay ratio was fifty-seven percent in 1973.”
“The study of law was unusual for women of my generation,” she reminds me. “For most girls growing up in the ’40s, the most important degree was not your B.A., but your M.R.S.”
“I can see that. Now I’m in the mainstream by calling myself a feminist.” I concede. “And where is Harvey Weinstein? We chucked that predator in jail!”
“Time is on the side of change,” she nods.
A matte twilight edges in, haloing Ruth’s chimeric presence.
“Now that the reactionary Court majority will overrule Roe, you must be unhappy after all your hard work to reinforce it,” I say. “I’ve read you had reservations about the underpinning for Roe v. Wade, the right to privacy.”
“One thing that conspicuously distinguishes women from men is that only women become pregnant. And if you subject a woman to disadvantageous treatment on the basis of her pregnant status… you would be denying her equal treatment under the law." She’s talking about the 1972 case she argued for the ACLU, Struck v. Secretary of Defense, when the Air Force decreed that Captain Struck must either have an abortion or leave the service.
"The argument was it's her right to decide either way, her right to decide whether or not to bear a child.” She sips her coffee—it must be getting cold—and leans back.
“This is something central to a woman's life, to her dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. And when the government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a full adult human responsible for her own choices."
I find myself leaning in, chin in hand, digesting her argument. Savoring her sober diction.
"Thus, legal challenges to undue restrictions on abortion procedures do not seek to vindicate some generalized notion of privacy,” she continues. “Rather, they center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.”
A timer ticks over and a lamp clicks on. A woman strolls by outside, her retriever sniffing the fence.
“Someone said, ‘If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament,’” I add. “And you’ve commented on the sexism that underlies abortion restrictions.”
“This way of thinking reflects ancient notions about women’s place in the family and under the Constitution—ideas that have long since been discredited.”
“And the justices wanted to ‘protect’ us from having a procedure we’d later regret,” I say, using airquote fingers.
“The solution the court approves, then, is not to require doctors to inform women… of the different procedures and their attendant risks. Instead, the court deprives women of the right to make an autonomous choice, even at the expense of their safety.”
Now I’m shaking my head. “But after the election of a white supremacist pussy-grabber—”
“He is a faker,” she mutters, her voice going gravelly.
“And after the senate replaced a centrist with a rapist in denial"—she’s wincing at my words—"then rushed to swap the epoch’s most influential feminist with a devout Catholic who says forced pregnancy and adoption can replace abortion.” Flush creeps up my neck. “In the face of all that, it’s pretty hard to see progress.”
But Ruth doubles down. “If you look at things over the long haul, we have come a long way from how it once was. And that makes me optimistic for the future.”
But would she really say that now, knowing about Alito’s secret draft that’s no longer secret? It confirms that those justices, threatening for so long to take away my own choice over my own body, are determined to do it.
Worse, he threw Ruth’s own words back at her, saying Roe “‘inflamed' a national issue that has remained bitterly divisive for the past half-century.”
I can see she’s fading. It’s past time to say goodbye. She stands, holding on to this writing desk, resting her hand on my cheek.
“My mother died when she was forty-seven.” She’s thinking of her mom again. “She was one of the smartest people I ever knew.”
“My mother died pretty young too.” I stand, swaddle her in her shawl and look around. Did she have a purse?
Ruth stops me, tilts up my chin. “She… armed me with strength to persist, even if I am not successful, never to give up, to keep trying.”
A dark ache clots my throat; I hate to see her go. What fate awaits our daughters? My granddaughter?
Leaning on my arm, her voice resonates. “I spent no time fretting, and found a way to do what I thought important to get done.”
For once during this bay-side tongue tide, I say nothing.
“Don’t be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, resentment. These just zap energy and waste time.” She finds my eyes. “It’s very hard to do anything as a loner, but if you get together with like-minded people, you can be a force for change.”
Then she shrugs out of her mantle and settles it around my shoulders.
Dumbstruck, I'm tearing up. Now the frog’s in my throat. “You already know how we feel about you. We’re so—awe-inspiring—grateful, we all are.” She brushes away praise like dandelion fluff. “We’d never have come this far—your brilliant, your mind, which you’ve nobly—" I stop. I need to get both oars back in the water.
“So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune.”
I just nod and help her across the threshold. “Ruth, thank you.”
She touches my hand. “Please, dear, you may call me Kiki.”
Okay, that last quote I made up, but otherwise those were all her exact words.
My cat jumps back into her chair and settles in Ruth’s afterglow. The kitchen clock marks time; cat hair collects in the corners.
Now Ruth is gone and ruthlessness remains. What now, girls; how will we fight back? Eighty percent of us believe abortion should be legal, some or all the time. So, what’s our weapon of choice? Abortions bans hurt real folks, especially people of color and those with low incomes or barriers to health care. Neurotransmitters ricochet across my brain; plans spin into my prefrontal cortex. I know lots of women and they know even more—I’ll host a series of lunches to fundraise for access and reproductive justice funds—a small thing, but not nothing. I must, we all must, get mad, shout and vote louder than a ticking clock. No isn’t the last word. Ruth counseled hope, encouraging the long view. We’re going to need it. Progress has been like running underwater, and never in a straight line.
I get up and walk to the window. The breeze lifts my thoughts, spins them around the room. Clematis coils my deck railing. The earth persists in its revolutions.
Image credit: The Guildfordian, Shawn Miller / Library of Congress. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
© 2022 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved.