Swanee Hunt, a former US ambassador, has long been an advocate for women’s rights, a backer of Democratic causes, and a fan of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
However, she recently finds it impossible to look at photographs of Ginsburg’s face straight in the eyes.
Hunt had only a passing acquaintance with the late Supreme Court justice, but she admired her and everything she stood for.
Hunt entertained the newly appointed Supreme Court justice at her apartment during the Clinton administration, accompanying her to the opera and inviting residents to a luncheon in her honour.
Hunt, who went on to become the founding director of Harvard’s Kennedy School’s Women in Public Policy Program, says, “I did have a big appreciation and felt like I gained a closer look.”
“It was very important to present her in another country as an example of an American that we were extremely proud of.”
Hunt isn’t precisely the target demographic for the Notorious RBG apparel that became ubiquitous during Ginsburg’s late-life ascent as an improbable Millennial meme generator, having spent a career inside circles of power at 72 years old and having spent a lifetime inside circles of power. However, she acquired a couple of mugs featuring the champion of women’s rights, who died in 2020, over the years.
Hunt, on the other hand, recently decided not to see them. With the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v Wade, Ginsburg’s choice not to resign during Obama’s presidency weighs big in the minds of some of her fans, who see it as allowing the destruction of huge elements of Ginsburg’s legacy.
The unintentional — but not unexpected — consequence was that Donald Trump was able to choose Ginsburg’s replacement, who could end up being the fifth vote needed to overturn the historic 1973 abortion-rights decision.
“I just wanted to put it away.” “I told myself, ‘I’m not going to look at it,'” Hunt explains. “I’d like to save it for my kids and grandkids.”
It required some effort to accomplish. I’m 72 years old, and I’d like to get rid of anything that makes me sad. It was the last thing I wanted to see. It had been unbearable. “I was angry because I had been betrayed.”
Since POLITICO reported last month on a draught judgement overturning Roe v. Wade, that combination of emotions has been more common.
People who might have been the justice’s peers — people well established in law, politics, and public service, many of whom can empathise with the complicated feelings involved in calling it quits — are feeling much of the wistfulness, not disgruntled idealist purchasers of lace-collar Halloween costumes or RBG refrigerator magnets.
“It’s difficult for me now to think of her work and of her — and not feel a sense of remorse and fury,” says Dorothy Samuels, who served on the editorial board of The New York Times for 30 years and wrote legal editorials.
“Because she was so committed to creating equality for all, this is so complex.” She devised a method for including women in the constitution.
And yet, what she has contributed to is a court that will erase the equality judgements that she was a part of for a long, long time.”
While researching a book in the years before Ginsburg’s death, Samuels heard the same thing from former clerks and other inner-circle members. “It was a very selfish act.”
“She took a chance,” says Michele Dauber, a controversial Stanford law professor, of Ginsburg’s apparent calculation that Hillary Clinton would be in the White House to appoint her successor. “However, she did not simply take a chance on herself. She put my daughter’s and granddaughter’s rights in jeopardy. Regrettably, that will be her legacy. It’s sad, I believe.”
Anyone attempting to conceal Ginsburg’s image will find it difficult to do so. Murals in New York, San Antonio, Kansas City, Denver, Baltimore, San Jose, and elsewhere; a US Navy ship; a New York hospital; a new species of praying mantis: nearly two years after her death, the capital, and the country, remain awash in Ginsburgiana.
The draft-ruling bombshell appears to have had no effect on sales of Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s Notorious RBG — the ur-text of Ginsburg’s transformation from jurist to the secular saint, according to Bookscan data.
Similarly, RBG merch is everywhere. Bradley Graham, the owner of Washington’s Politics & Prose bookstore, says, “We still carry a bunch of stuff with her image on it.” “There’s a cup, a doll, and a candle,” she says.
Sales on these types of items fluctuate, but we haven’t noticed any significant declines. We still have some in stock and sell a few. Some people have expressed their displeasure with her recently.”
In fact, the link between Ginsburg’s celebrity and her retirement decisions has become part of the posthumous finger-pointing. Was the RBG cult one of the factors that influenced her decision to stay in office rather than retire when it was politically safer?
“I’ve heard the argument, both before and after her death, that ‘Why have you people made her this demigod?'” says Debbie Levy, a Washington-based author of two mostly laudatory children’s books about Ginsburg.
“I say, maybe someone made her a demigod, but I didn’t.” I thought she was a wonderful person, and I still think she is. This notion that we’ve done a disservice to her by elevating her as an example. “Disservice to whom?” I would ask.
In addition, the timeline isn’t quite right. The book by Carmon and Knizhnik was published in 2015, while Obama was still president but the Democrats had lost the Senate. It was founded in 2013 on the Tumblr platform.
But, by the time the 2012 elections rolled around, Ginsburg had already battled colon and pancreatic cancer, prompting calls for her to step down for safe-replacement reasons.
Those early retirement calls were met with Ginsburg’s characteristically obstinate refusal to listen to those who told her she needed to step down.
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Nonetheless, Justice Samuel Alito’s draught opinion, which cites Ginsburg’s own publicly stated disagreements with Roe v. Wade, has a certain potency because of Ginsburg’s unique cultural status today (she had issues with aspects of the judicial and political approach, not the result).
The comments enraged Ginsburg supporters, but they also highlight a point made by the justice’s feminist critics in recent weeks: that the focus on RBG obscures a slew of other feminist colleagues, including those who may have outwitted her in some cases.
Linda Hirshman, a lawyer and co-author of a dual biography of Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor, says, “She was very smart, very clever, and very energetic, but she wasn’t the only game in town.”