All working moms don’t have to be like RBG

sketch of RBG with a crown

By Jenny Leon

I struggled to sit through the full-length movie without falling asleep. I had gone to see On the Basis of Sex to be inspired, but all I could think was she must have been freaking exhausted.

It was late 2018. I was pregnant with my second child. I had a nine-month-old baby at home. I had left my law firm after my son was born because I did not think I could balance the workload with being the mother I wanted to be to my son. I started a new job in September and found out I was pregnant the same week. I could not imagine going to law school with a child like Ruth Bader Ginsburg did. Let alone with a child and a husband with cancer.

In the wake of her death, NPR declared that RBG was an “inspiration to working mothers.” There is no question that this is true. But what we don’t talk about is that she worked like she did not only to open doors for other women, but so that other women would not have to work like she did.

After Ginsburg graduated first in her class at Columbia Law School, she had trouble obtaining employment due to gender discrimination. As a result, she was forced to be the most qualified, most available, smartest person in the room. She could not say, “Sorry, I have to pick up my kid from daycare.”

Throughout her career, she worked tirelessly to break down stereotypes about women. In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, Ginsburg, then a lawyer for the ACLU, argued that to deny a single father the same social security benefits as a single mother was discriminatory because it was based on the assumption that a man would not choose to stay home and care for his kids. Twenty-eight years later in Nevada Department of Resources v. Hibbs, Justice Rehnquist relied on Ginsburg’s arguments in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld. He found that the Family Medical Leave Act was necessary to enshrine the principle that men should be afforded the same family leave benefits to which women were entitled. This was to mitigate the effect of the stereotype that men were not caregivers.

Justice Ginsburg wanted the world to see what she saw. Stereotypes about gender roles confined women to certain spheres of society for no logical reason. She wanted to create a more just society for women.

But in 2020, we know that ensuring fairness means creating the social conditions that allow women to succeed both at home and in the workplace. To truly achieve this, we not only need to treat women as equals, but to respond to their unique concerns. We are no longer supposed to be playing in a man’s world.

Yet, when RBG died, it felt like no one acknowledged that her views were shaped by the fact that she graduated from law school in 1959. RBG was fighting a different fight than we are now. She was fighting for inclusion. We are now fighting to accommodate our differences.

Instead of acknowledging that the way we view gender equality has changed, largely as a result of RBG’s efforts, everywhere I looked I saw a return of the insidious shaming that has been undermining women for decades: If she can do it, why can’t we?

My own answer is that I don’t want to. I don’t want to be up until 4am doing my work because I chose to put my kids to bed. I don’t want to have such a rigid schedule that if my children take an extra fifteen minutes getting ready in the morning, my whole day has been thrown off kilter. I don’t want every extra moment I spend with my children to be sullied with the constant pressure to get back to work.

I understand that RBG made that choice. But I was under the impression that she made that choice so that future generations of women wouldn’t have to.

As a pregnant woman sitting in that movie theater, taking a brief respite from the craziness of motherhood and work that consumed my life, I thought: thank goodness it was her and not me.

Jenny Leon practiced corporate finance for six years at several major midtown Manhattan law firms. She has finished treatment for breast cancer and is now hiding out from the pandemic in Montclair, New Jersey with her husband and two babies. She can be found on Instagram @jennyrosenyc.

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