Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion and a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University who writes about authoritarianism and propaganda. Follow her @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
She was sexually harassed in college. When she finished law school, at the top of her class, she only found a clerkship when her professor promised the prospective employer that he had a man in mind to take over if she didn’t work out. As a young law professor, she was told she could be paid less than a male peer because she had a husband to support her. In her current job, which she has held for 25 years, her male colleagues often interrupt her.
Some of this may sound familiar.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice of this story, has always been someone women from all walks of life can relate to. She grew up poor in Brooklyn and made a career on the force of her intelligence; she’s a mother and had a long and happy marriage; she blends female gravitas and earthy humor.
At 84 years old, she’s of the generation that came up in the proverbial “man’s world,” when behaviors and attitudes now being denounced were considered unremarkable. She knows that sexism can be so ingrained in a culture that the same men who tell themselves they respect women and consider themselves devoted “family men” can offend and objectify women daily at the office.
She of all people, can appreciate the transformative potential of #MeToo for men and women, and the historical meaning of its appearance during the rule of a president, Donald Trump, who has made political capital out of asserting white male domination.
Inside the life of a Supreme Court Justice
That’s why Ginsburg’s decision to speak about the #MeToo movement and her own experiences with inequity and harassment at the Sundance Film Festival the other day is so important. Sundance gathers influencers from entertainment and the media, the very industries that have seen the toppling of male harassers and the exposure of the situations of individual and institutional complicity that protect them.
It’s surely no accident that in a wide-ranging interview with NPR’s Nina Totenberg, Ginsburg chose to highlight the connection between the past silences of harassment victims and the lack of protocols and legal protections.
“We didn’t have a name for it,” she stated, with regard to harassment. When there is no common language to describe an experience, it is far easier to dismiss it and discredit those who try to bring it into the public domain. The history of political, sexual, and racial abuse is clear on that point. “I think it’s about time. For so long, women were silent, thinking there was nothing you could do about it,” Ginsburg continued. “But the law is now on the side of women or men who encounter harassment, and that’s a good thing.”
These legal protections are especially important with regard to retaliation, which is one of the greatest issues for those who decide to speak up. Ginsburg reminded women that strength lies in numbers: backlash thrives when women hide away.
There’s much to be hopeful for on that front. Hillary Clinton’s campaign – and the virulent misogyny it unleashed- and Donald Trump’s presidency have caused a flowering of female activism and public presence. It is expressed in women’s marches, in the unprecedented numbers of female political candidates for the 2018 midterm elections and beyond, and in the many discussions about female empowerment and workplace parity.
Ginsburg is a feminist icon for many, but her long view also reminds us where we come from. We can thank her, and other pioneers, if today women feel supported to speak their minds and their truths in a way that feels new.