Jurisprudence

The Contempt of “Notorious ACB”

Applying Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nickname to Amy Coney Barrett is deliberately degrading.

Donald Trump's hand stealing RBG's crown.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by exopixel/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Sashkinw/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

One thing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used to say is how much she hated making a suggestion only to have a man suggest the same thing 10 minutes later and get the credit. It was an act of erasure that affronted her. And as much as she minded being erased herself, she hated seeing women’s lives and needs being erased more broadly. Which is why, in her dissent in Hobby Lobby, Ginsburg wrote eloquently about how the majority opinion had wholly erased all of the women workers who would be denied access to preventative health care from its calculus. She made the same point this last spring when none of the justices who decided the Little Sisters of the Poor case spared a thought for thousands of female workers who would see their access to contraception vanish as a result. Ginsburg’s life’s work was to reclaim and spotlight invisible women who had been ignored or silenced, and to speak up for them, and for the things they needed in order to live lives that could be as full as and equal to men’s.

Her death was painful for the millions of women who called her a role model and hero because her work mattered to us, and to our material lives. It was made more painful because Mitch McConnell was already dancing on her grave back in May, months before she died, and because within an hour of her death, he announced that her seat was his to fill. This was an act of erasure by a man who didn’t mind that his rush to replace her violated the old-fashioned idea that the country should be given just one moment to honor her legacy before going to war over what remained. And it was painful because we knew that whoever was named to her seat would be tasked with undoing her legacy.

Amid all of this grief, we are now subject to a turn to parody that is also cruelty. The White House rollout of Judge Amy Coney Barrett as candidate for the seat has gone beyond erasing Ginsburg’s legacy—they are stealing the trappings of that legacy and stripping it for parts. On Trump’s orders, CNN reported, the Rose Garden was deliberately done up to mirror precisely Bill Clinton’s announcement of Ginsburg’s nomination. There are now grotesque GOP T-shirts that imply that 60 years of unprecedented and brilliant legal advocacy by Ginsburg could simply be reappropriated by someone else because she too is a woman in possession of three names. This comedic implication—that Barrett is the natural inheritor of Ginsburg’s legacy—is depraved. As Donald Trump explained when he introduced her, Barrett’s work to dismantle Ginsburg’s legacy in abortion, health care, discrimination, and gun rights is to be construed as pro-women simply because a woman will be doing it. Even Barrett’s own remarks relied on co-opting Ginsburg’s reputation and legacy, as if the fact that one’s husband is the better cook is the only hallmark of female empowerment. Lack of originality is the hallmark of this administration: Like Trump’s inauguration cake or Melania’s stolen convention speech, they routinely steal good things and then brazenly and cheaply repurpose them for opposing ends. It is infuriating not only because it is rank, immature trolling—it is infuriating because it is also a form of contempt.

Imagine the reaction had Merrick Garland made a triumphal speech about carrying forward the intellectual and jurisprudential mantle of Antonin Scalia. It would have enraged Scalia’s admirers. The attempt to cram Barrett’s own accomplishments and individual jurisprudence into the mold of RBG’s is purposefully insulting. But it is the only pattern anyone in the White House or the GOP can imagine. As pathetic as these little attempts at stolen valor truly are, the clear message is more horrifying: They think that the woman who invented constitutional women’s equality and the woman who has toiled to undermine that work are precisely the same, because they are both women. This reveals these Republicans’ lack of understanding of what feminism even is: In the end, to them, all women are indistinguishable.

In oral arguments in the Edie Windsor Defense of Marriage Act case in 2013, Justice Ginsburg coined the term “skim-milk marriage” to describe the not-quite-unions some claimed were as good as a genuine marriage. “Skim-milk marriage” was her phrase for a union that was an affront to the very thing it purported to be. This week, the White House has offered up a tour de force in “skim-milk feminism,” by suggesting that all women are so wholly fungible and interchangeable that the substitution of any woman for Ginsburg is an act of feminism, even if she advocates for the polar opposite of Ginsburg’s constitutional efforts to raise everyone up to equality. Pop a crown on the head of Amy Coney Barrett and watch the Notorious RBG vanish as they attempt to claim that something that was earned is just another thing that can be stolen. How thin, how watery, how sad, and also how deliberately cruel to suggest that there is finally genuine gender equality in America because a woman is poised to do the work of reversing it.

Maybe it works for Mitch McConnell and the staff of the White House—this sneering implication that the two women are the same because they are both women. But for the women who were not given a day or even an hour to grieve for their hero, maybe it doesn’t. Some may be very familiar with what erasure looks and feels like. This is insult slathered atop an injury that likely already runs deep—as deep as the injury to Christine Blasey Ford when a spitting, furious Brett Kavanaugh threatened revenge on anyone who had believed her; as deep as the many times the president’s insulting, harassing, and sexually abusive treatment of women has been justified, laughed off, minimized, and defended by the Justice Department itself. Maybe skim-milk feminism is the only thing the White House cows can produce. But I think women voters can taste the difference.

I’ve been struggling to decide how to feel about Barrett. I am reliably told that she is intelligent, dignified, and kind. I believe it. So, of course, was Merrick Garland. But her kindness and love for her family and colleagues doesn’t change the fact that her legal and extralegal record evinces a systematic hostility to workers’ rights, reproductive freedom, access to health care, gun safety, and the rights of prisoners and asylum-seekers and elderly workers and racial minorities whose erasure Ginsburg could not bear. But whatever else is true, I think it must be excruciating to stand next to the most contemptible president in history, knowing you wouldn’t leave your teenage daughters alone in a room with him, pretending he is worthy of the office he holds. It must be brutal to have two cherished children adopted from a country that same president described as a shithole, and still pretend that he is fit to serve. It must be mortifying to be described as a constitutional powerhouse, a subtle and independent legal thinker, when you have been selected by a president and Senate that have already told you precisely how you must rule in the cases you have yet to hear. It must be demeaning to have one’s own rich and complete legal and jurisprudential worldview, developed over decades in opposition to the worldview of Ginsburg, tidily recast as Notorious 2.0, just so the GOP can, once again, troll the libs. None of this sounds anything like feminism to me—not regular feminism and not skim-milk feminism either. It sounds like subordination and diminution, which are the things men do to erase women—the things Justice Ginsburg devoted her life to battling.

It really is a double tragedy: Yes, this rollout attempted to tidily erase the Notorious RBG. But by casting Judge Barrett as an imitation of RBG, it also managed to erase and replace Barrett’s own extensive career and jurisprudence. In other words, they’ve managed to erase the very woman they’ve purported to elevate.

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