The death of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a signal of a heroism of endurance and sustained good judgement.
When she began in law, women were strictly forbidden from employment in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. She explains why here.
She was also asked often how many women would be enough women on the U.S. Supreme Court, and her answer was: “When there are nine”. That’s the kind of boldness that inspired a whole new generation in the United States and across English-speaking legal systems to appreciate her in the documentary RBG:
RBG’s death was an important event for women here because it happened on the anniversary of Women’s Suffrage Day 126 years ago. On this day in New Zealand we celebrate women being able to vote, the women who won further victories of political liberation, and many got together to recount our female heroes enabled by that right and all those rights that followed.
While it is now unremarkable that Labour would have 50% of women in its caucus, or its Cabinet, who can forget the media hysteria about Labour seeking to tilt gender representation towards equalisation. The shouts about the “Man Ban” right across the media, as in Newshub at the time.
Courageous as he was not, Labour leader at the time David Shearer walked it back.
I think there were more Davids in the 2013 Labour shadow Cabinet than there were women. The battle over equal representation was hard fought in the back rooms and subcommittees, for many years. And one of those young activists now runs the country: Jacinda Ardern.
Now 7 years later in 2020 it is quite unremarkable that our two main political parties are for the first time since 1998 being led by women. It hasn’t even been remarked in the media that the Auckland Central seat contest guarantees that one of three women will get it.
It gets little mention in 2018 that for the first time in our history 50% of our civil service heads were women.
Also that positions held on public sector Boards are heading towards being equally men and women.
That goal has now been achieved under Prime Minister Ardern’s leadership, several years earlier than planned.
Also unremarkable that the Prime Minister, Opposition leader, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Governor General are now all women. In the case of Justice Winkelman, she is relatively young and hence has a good chance at leading our Supreme Court for a good decade or more to come (compulsorily retires at 70).
After Hilary Clinton came close but failed to win the 2016 United States presidency, a female Vice President who may also run the U.S. Senate majority barely remarked as to her gender, though the amount of power she would jointly wield has been.
Justice Ginsburg’s death is a sign that there is no inevitability to ever-expanding liberty and representation for women. But it is also a sign that it takes often the dedication of one’s full life to achieve change for good, and in the face of retrograde forces to dismantle progress it may take until right until one’s death to hold such political entropy at bay. I don’t see that kind of heroism very often.
While RBG was hired as a moderate with strong public sector and gender activist credentials by President Clinton, since that time the makeup of the Supreme Court has tilted stronger and stronger in the more conservative majority. So the opportunity to replace her is a massive ideological axis upon which the future progressive makeup of their Supreme Court will tilt.
In New Zealand our first elected female Prime Minister, Helen Clark, was the leader who redeemed social democracy as a viable force within New Zealand. Else we could have the absurdly timid Phil Goff as Prime Minister right now, or worse the feckless David Shearer.
It was Helen Clark (with her most able Cabinet) who renewed our social cohesion, laying the groundwork for our current Prime Minister to draw on that social democratic cohesion in a time of real crisis and intervene in our society and in our economy as we have not seen in living memory. Clark was the necessary precedent for Ardern’s interventions.
Indeed while the legacy of John Key will be as a weak banker and weaker Prime Minister, Helen Clark’s legacy in the next five years will be as the one who restored the idea of truth resting in science by getting to the source of the Covid-19 outbreak through the World Health Organisation investigation.
In New Zealand’s last forty years it has been female Labour Prime Ministers alone that have secured progressive gains for the left and for us all, and massively expanded the extent and good of the state to sustain our cohesion. Clearly, if you want more of that, you need to vote for Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party in four weeks time.
I have not much doubt that we will look back even after Labour’s second term and recognise Jacinda Ardern as the hero to our country that she is. Like Justice Ginsburg, I hope she serves as our leader for many years and, in time, I hope an even better Labour woman will replace her.