Ginsburg: Feminism means freedom for all of us
BY MARION DAVIS
PROVIDENCE -- In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little hard of hearing. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's mother-in-law offered this advice on her wedding day, and she has followed it faithfully.
It has helped her live happily with her husband for 48 years, she said yesterday to Brown University's Class of 2002. And it has helped her relate to her colleagues on the Supreme Court.
It's not that one shouldn't be a good listener, Ginsburg said. It just pays, sometimes, "not to hear -- to tune out -- when angry, unkind or thoughtless words are spoken."
Her mother, who died the day before her high school graduation, also advocated that philosophy. Wise people know better than to snap back "with a barb, brickbat, or broadside" when they are offended.
Wise people understand "that anger, resentment, envy, indulgence in recriminations, or self-pity, do no good" -- that they are wasteful. They "greatly drain away one's time" and sap energy "better devoted to productive endeavors."
Ginsburg, a Supreme Court justice since 1993, offered her advice at Brown's Baccalaureate Service, in the Meeting House of the First Baptist Church in America, at the foot of College Hill.
Her speech capped a ceremony of prayer and singing that ranged from solemn to raucous. The formal program was livened up by the seniors in caps and gowns who, crowded together in the pews, erupted frequently into loud applause and cheers.
Honoring the diverse backgrounds of Brown's students and faculty, the service included a Muslim call to prayer, a Hindu blessing, a Baha'i prayer, a text from Zen Buddhism, a Hebrew blessing and scripture readings, and a reading from the New Testament, in Greek and English.
As Ginsburg, Brown President Ruth J. Simmons, and university chaplains and top officials waited to enter, students clad in bright yellow and orange costumes performed a spectacular "Lion Dance," drawing on a Chinese and Vietnamese tradition to celebrate auspicious days.
And immediately before Ginsburg's address, Brown's Fusion Dance Company performed as Shades of Brown, a student a capella group, sang a variation on "Bridge Over Troubled Waters."
Simmons, who is presiding over her first Brown commencement, stirred the Class of '02 into a frenzy with a simple, "Oh-two." When the rumble she unleashed finally stopped, she urged the seniors to appreciate the value of that moment, and how they will look back upon it all their lives.
Simmons introduced Ginsburg as "a truly remarkable woman" who "has set an example of courage, of determination and of wisdom."
Ginsburg came of age in the 1950s, Simmons noted, when women were widely viewed as inferior, and Jews faced unabashed bigotry. So hostile was the environment, Simmons said, that despite graduating first in her class at Columbia Law School, Ginsburg was shunned by all the private law firms, and received only one job offer, as a clerk for a judge.
Yet despite the obstacles, Ginsburg built a distinguished career, as a legal scholar and teacher; as a litigator, in the 1970s, on behalf of women's rights; and as a federal judge, Simmons noted.
Looking tiny in a light -blue gown, Ginsburg spoke to the students in a soft, measured tone. She began with the advice from her mother-in-law, then urged the students not to simply strive for economic gain, but to "become active in community life, in helping to make things a little better for people less fortunate than you."
She quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose answer to the question, "What is success?" was: "To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived."
Ginsburg avoided politics or even public-policy issues in her remarks, but she did speak, at length, about the value of taking women seriously and treating them as men's equals, and about her definition of feminism.
On the first point, she recalled a 1960s South African legislator named Helen Suzman, who was scolded by a fellow member of Parliament for "chattering continually." She was "chattering," Ginsburg said, about the need to end apartheid. Her colleague was former South African President P.W. Botha, who would later learn that voices like hers "can do more than grate on the nerves of oppressors."
Ginsburg recalled how in her youth, American women faced extensive discrimination. Much has changed since then, she said, but many people still view feminism with suspicion.
Yet all feminism means, Ginsburg argued, is "freeing people, men as well as women, to be you and me, allowing each individual to pursue the God-given talents and qualities he or she has, without artificial restraints."
Ginsburg stretched that principle beyond gender to offer a challenge to the Brown seniors: to live up to the United States' motto, e pluribus unum, "of many, one."
In today's world, she said, the challenge "is to make or keep our communities places where we can understand, accommodate, even celebrate our differences, while pulling together for the common good.
"Of many, one, is the main aspiration, I believe. It is my hope for our country and world. I urge all of you, in the Brown tradition, to play a part in achieving that high aspiration."
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