Not just a collar

for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
at a memorial on the steps of the SC State Supreme Court, 24 Sept 2020

A collar is not just a collar—one thing
they taught us, Ginsburg and O’Connor in jabots
of lace, staking a place among the men
all in collar and tie. Ginsberg saw
the Constitution as a document of promise,
not privilege. She said that even when
you change the players, separate but equal is still
not equal, the field’s not level, and as long
as laws rely on unproven assumptions
about the way women are, those laws
keep women in their place, not
on a pedestal but in a cage. And whether
or not a surviving parent is mom or dad,
the child is still a child and it should be
apparent that a parent is still a parent.
And whether or not that Arizona girl
had a pill in her pocket at school, the men
in the room need to consider how it would feel
to be strip-searched for Ibuprophen
as a 13-year-old girl. She won that one
but sometimes it’s not about winning here
and now, but in a distant there and then
when women have the same opportunities
as men.

If a collar is not just a collar,
a jabot may be both job and jab,
the lace meticulous, precise, knots
and links like the inky lace of letters
on a page. She says her college lit professor
taught her that the right words in the right
order matter, that words can paint a picture.
If a South Carolina law had caused the court
to say a blight of racism infects the body
politic, she said it had become more
like the Hydra, the monster snake Hercules
fought that grew new heads every time
he cut one off. Every time a racist
election law was identified and stopped,
she said, “others sprang up in its place,”
like Texas trying to disenfranchise Blacks
by passing the same law over and over
again. The other judges pretended that,
as Roberts said, “things have changed dramatically.”
She said, instead, that throwing out something
when it has worked and is continuing to work
to stop discrimination “is like throwing
away your umbrella in a rainstorm because
you are not getting wet.” The right
words in the right order. When rioters
were banging on the glass doors of a Florida
election office with clipboards and fists in order
to shut down the recount in Bush v. Gore,
she was a dogged defender of proper procedure,
even if it meant delay in naming a president.
It was then she dropped “respectfully” from
the usual close, writing instead, I dissent.

The court, she said, does not write on a clean
slate. Things accumulate, persist, like mercury
in a river in Roebuck, South Carolina,
even after the company changed their name
to Safety-Kleen, then finally closed the plant.
It’s all moot, they said, since they had
cleaned up their act, though it wasn’t clear
they wouldn’t do it again. Or like the pay
raises Lilly Ledbetter received, small
increments that deceived her for years. Other
judges pretended that “each and every pay
decision she did not immediately challenge
wiped the slate clean.” Yet those decisions,
together, set and kept her pay well below
every other manager.

There is no
clean slate. There’s only history, precedent,
the blurred and half-erased words we write
over. In ‘73 Ginsburg urged the Court
to recognize that it writes not only for
“this case and this day alone” but other
cases like it, and others to come, asking—
whether a state cherishes its daughters as much
as its sons, whether a schoolgirl has got
a pill in her pocket or not, whether a raise
is really a raise when it’s all added up.

A few years ago the justice wrote, “Dissents
speak to a future age. . . . That’s the dissenter’s
hope: that they are writing not for today,
but for tomorrow.” A collar is not just
a collar. When Ginsburg opened her office closet
for Katie Couric, it was a glossary, a semiotics
of gift, event, decision. And when she wore
that spiky rhinestone-studded number she got
from Glamour, we knew what it meant: dissent.
But maybe it’s not spikes but 20-something
dark and dazzling tongues, speaking not quite
as one but pointed, speaking up and speaking
out, speaking against, against, dissenting.

For today, we are ruthless,
but we speak not for today, but for tomorrow.

Watch the live WISTV recording of the event.