The Judicious RBG

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a powerful advocate for the #MeToo movement by showing up and modeling dignity.

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks during the Cinema Café at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival at Filmmaker Lodge on Jan. 21 in Park City, Utah.
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks during the Cinema Café at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival at Filmmaker Lodge on Jan. 21 in Park City, Utah.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not going to talk about Donald Trump again. If you listen between the pauses, though, she’s one of the most vocal and important participants in #MeToo, and she is modeling a way to respond to it that is smart and careful. We should be listening.

Justice Ginsburg learned the hard way how not to express herself on political topics during the summer before the 2016 election. In a series of interviews, she called Donald Trump a “faker” and suggested he should release his tax returns. Trump responded in characteristically Trumpian fashion by tweeting, among other things, that “Justice Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court has embarrassed all by making very dumb political statements about me. Her mind is shot - resign!”

Even Ginsburg’s staunchest supporters agreed she had overstepped. The justice soon apologized for her remarks, saying they were “ill-advised.” Trump won the election. Ginsburg has made it amply clear that she plans to stay on the bench for a long, long time. And increasingly, she has managed to thread the needle between engaging with this president (which is where madness lies) and ignoring him (which is where tyranny lives). She has managed that by being ubiquitous and public while never allowing herself to talk about politics explicitly.

In recent days, she has traveled from Sundance—where she helped launch a new movie about, well, her—to a CNN interview with Poppy Harlow, where she talked about her own #MeToo moment when she was an undergraduate at Cornell. On Monday night, at the National Constitution Center, she was questioned by Jeffrey Rosen. (I participated in a symposium on Ginsburg’s career as part of that latter event.)

In each of the many public appearances she has made this winter, she has declined to speak about Trump or Merrick Garland or the future of the Supreme Court. Looking at that pattern, you might think she’s confining herself to platitudes. That isn’t the case. Ginsburg is a Jedi master of the long pause; if you don’t surf those pauses with her, you inevitably risk missing all the good stuff. When she’s asked a question, she tends to power up—in the manner of an animatronic Disney creation—speak slowly and carefully, and then power down. Her clerks tell me she has been like this for decades. This isn’t her age; it’s how she processes.

I have watched many an interviewer mistakenly believe she is done with a thought, just as she’s revving up for the big reveal. Rosen, who has known the justice for a long time, knows exactly how to surf her silences. Indeed, he explicitly asked her about it, noting that “in conversation, all of your friends know that you have to wait, because it’s in the pauses, you are about to say something special.”

Ginsburg paused and looked at him long enough to elicit laughter.

She then replied, “I try to think before I speak.” (More laughter.) “It’s something my husband learned as a law teacher. He was concerned that the men were volunteering much more often than the women. And one of his colleagues gave him advice. She said, ‘Don’t ever call on the first hand that is raised. That will invariably be a man. Wait five, six seconds and you will see women’s hands go up because women were thinking before they spoke.’ ”

Rosen then waited long enough to elicit laughter.

The conversation was wide-ranging and generous, and spanned Ginsburg’s conviction that #MeToo is “here to stay.” Ginsburg argued that “due process” and the #MeToo movement are not fundamentally in opposition and that millennials will be the key to a better future, in part because they will band together “with like-minded people” to make change. Because, as she put it: “Young people should appreciate the values on which our nation is based and how precious they are. … And if they don’t become part of the crowd that seeks to uphold them, there’s no court capable of restoring it.” Earlier in the day, in response to a question from a student, Ginsburg even referenced Big Brother and the suppression of thought and speech. But she never, ever crossed a line into attacks or even into naming this moment.

Ginsburg encouraged women and girls to find their voices and speak out about harassment and inequality, and she cautioned against speaking out in anger and saying something you might live to regret. She talked about all the times she’d swallowed her anger, gritted her teeth, and sucked it up, because she was arguing a case and “needed to win.” Back in the days “when I was a flaming feminist litigator,” she explained, “I never said to judges who asked an improper question, ‘You sexist pig.’ ” If anything, she is still swallowing, gritting, and smiling. But she is also winning, and she knows it. At one of her (many) appearances this week, she grinned, “I am almost 85. And everyone wants to take a picture with me.”

Ginsburg well knew that it was in those trademark pauses where she spoke most eloquently. She talked about the ways in which every president since Jimmy Carter took pains to seat women and minorities on the federal bench and pointedly noted that this trend never reversed itself, even under Reagan and the Bushes. She didn’t mention that Trump’s picks for the judiciary have almost all been white men. She didn’t have to. The audience heard it. She also talked about unconscious bias and gender and not knowing about your own prejudices until you are confronted with them. As she cautioned the audience to fight for independent courts and for a free press, she said not one word to suggest that she was talking about a moment of profound existential threat to women, minorities, and liberty.

I have long contended that the image of the fiery, fierce, Notorious RBG obscures the vastly more interesting story of the institutionalist, cautious Justice Ginsburg, who—as she puts it—learned to be a “little bit deaf” in order to stay married and still does so in order to work on a collegial court in which people have often said regrettable things. But she isn’t a little bit deaf. And we shouldn’t be either.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is no shrinking violet. I came away from the National Constitution Center feeling a little bit sorry for the hapless teaching assistant who attempted unsuccessfully to sexually harass her as an undergraduate. She let him have it. But as she steps forward, at 84, to celebrate the fact #MeToo has transcended the statutes and rules she herself fought to put in place, let’s give it up for the Ruth Bader Ginsburg who prizes listening, cooperating, thinking before you speak, and giving powerful force to the pauses. She is showing us that one needn’t be a badass to be a warrior, and that the ability to think before you speak is a virtue that’s more prized than ever. The winning lies in showing up, in modeling dignity, and in supporting the fighters—particularly the young ones—simply by being in the room.

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Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.