Lessons from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Amy Coney Barrett, and Kamala Harris
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel.”— Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton
When my daughter was about four years old she was attending her brother’s soccer game as she did every fall and spring. As she was playing on the sidelines another little boy came up to her wanting to play, but instead he teased her and pushed her down. Not one to take things lying down, Lillian jumped up and chased him into his mother’s arms. My daughter stood in front of them and said, “Please put him down. Put him down. I want to talk to him!” The mother chuckled, brushed her off, and didn’t put down her son. Lillian, not one to be deterred said loudly, “It’s not nice to push people down and not say sorry. You need to say sorry!” The mother embarrassed, walked away with Lillian trailing behind her exhorting mother and son to do the right thing. The mother not quite knowing what to do with the little girl following her, just kept on walking.
It’s been 8 years since that incident. Over the years my daughter has grown into a quiet force using her voice less and her actions more as she continues to stand up to the pushers and the teasers by helping the bullied in the classroom and on the playground.
My daughter turned 12 years old and is in her first year of middle school. She applied to and was accepted into a male dominated math/science program. As she explores this new environment she is finding her voice again and joining the conversation now using both her voice and her actions to define her. She is learning to share her ideas even as she’s talked over during class or by her brothers at the dinner table.
As Lillian enters this last year of pre-adolescence I am reminded of Jen Hatmaker’s words in her book Fierce, Free and Full of Fire: “We need more women comfortable in their own skin…Know you who you are, know how you thrive, know your own volume, and live unapologetically in that lane…whatever container you naturally fill is the perfect one. You take up the right amount of space. So take it up.” I wish someone had shared these words with me when I was a young woman. These are words I still need to hear as a 40-something year old mother of four when recently I stood in line and waited my turn to speak to the director of my son’s program after a presentation at his school. As I quietly stood in line another parent, a man, approached the director, nodded at me, and when the director was done speaking to the person ahead of me, the man moved forward, and immediately began speaking. I stood there stunned that he blatantly cut ahead of me even though he had initially acknowledge my presence. Surprised, I grasped for words to stop him politely while I was incensed, the director glanced at me and instead of taking that as my cue, I just stood there gaping and found myself once again waiting my turn because I was taught not to make a fuss, not to draw attention to myself, and to wait to be acknowledged. When he was finished, he nodded at me, and continued on his way not thinking twice of his actions.
Take up all the space you need are words that I am learning to share with my daughters; because not only do I want my middle schooler to take up space, I want my kindergartner to do the same. I want them to be familiar with the concept before they end up like me who is still wondering how much space I can and should take. I want my sons to make room at the table for their sisters, wives, and daughters. I want my sons to learn to wait their turn as their sisters speak. I want room for all of them at the table, learning from one another, sharing ideas, and collaborating.
In the midst of a pandemic, marches for justice and equality, and a country proven to be divided, 2020 has been a big year for women empowerment and recognition. Although we lost a force to be reckoned with on the Supreme Court with the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, another woman was nominated and confirmed to take her seat. At the age of 48, Amy Coney Barrett is the fifth woman and the youngest sitting Supreme Court Justice. A week after Barrett’s confirmation, the American people voted Joe Biden as the next President of the United States, and as a result, Kamala Harris is to be the first female, Black, South Asian American to become Vice President.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Amy Coney Barrett, Kamala Harris. What do these women have in common? They take up space. They are heard. They unapologetically make room for themselves at the table. Former representative Shirley Chisholm said, “If they won’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.” Ginsburg, Barrett, and Harris have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate that there is room for them and women everywhere, at the table.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it best, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” Ginsburg, the second female Supreme Court Justice was an architect of the legal fight for women’s rights in the 1970’s. Until her death in September 2020, she continued to fight for women’s equality by acknowledging, “Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.” Even in her personal life when the school administration called her repeatedly to come in to address her son’s mischievous behavior in elementary school, she replied, “The child has two parents. Please alternate calls.” As a result, the calls were fewer and further between, proving that the mischievous wrongdoing wasn’t notable enough to call the father and in turn, wasn’t notable enough to call her.
Love her or hate her, Amy Coney Barrett’s intelligence cannot be denied. When she was asked to share her notes for her confirmation hearings she held up an empty notepad with nothing other than the letterhead of the United States Senate. She was poised, prepared, and demonstrated a dispassionate and self-possessed temperament throughout the hearings, unlike her now colleague, Justice Kavanaugh. While fans of Ginsburg are uneasy about having Barrett as the newly appointed Supreme Court Justice, the mother of seven children, is authentically herself, living out her pro-life values. She remains unruffled and ready to join her colleagues on the bench.
A cheer among women rang out when Kamala Harris firmly said, “I’m speaking,” during the vice presidential debate. Why? Because, women around the country are used to being spoken over, discounted, and not included in conversation. During the debate Harris remained calm and collected demonstrating her ability to make her point without being distracted by emotion. Intelligent, well-spoken, and confident, Harris is breaking glass. Regardless of your political affiliation, Harris’ election is historic, prompting women to share the meme on social media, “Make sure to wear shoes, ladies. There’s glass everywhere.”
Ginsburg was once quoted, “Don’t be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, and resentment. These just zap energy and waste time.” It appears that both Barrett and Harris have heeded her advice. Brilliant, sharp, and articulate, both women will take their respective seats; one to the Supreme Court, the other as Vice President of the United States.
Why does any of this matter? What bearing do Ginsburg, Barrett, and Harris have on women and young girls everywhere? Everything. They are role models for unapologetically showing up, getting the work done, and giving voice to women around the country. Harris says, “What I want young women and girls to know is that you are powerful, and your voice matters.”
So before my daughters grow up without knowing how much space they are allowed, I am telling them now: Take up all the space you need. There is room for you at the table.