The Powerful Voice of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
September 22, 2020 5:00 AM
by Nichola D. Gutgold
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When I write about famous speakers, it can be very challenging to secure personal interviews; however doing so can really make a manuscript better. In 2008 I started researching the communication styles and strategies of the women Supreme Court justices. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg granted my request for a personal interview and I met the justice in her chambers in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 19, 2010. 

While I contacted all four women (O’Connor, Sotomayor, Kagan and Ginsburg) at the same time, RBG was the first (and most infirm — she was recovering from her first fight with pancreatic cancer) to meet with me.  Not only that, she put in a good word for me with Justice Sotomayor who wasn’t granting interviews at the time. 

My research on Ruth Bader Ginsburg took place years before the phrase “the notorious RBG” was introduced. In her presence, I could feel greatness. As I studied her biography, my admiration for her personal life was as deep as her professional accomplishments.  She was deeply committed to her marriage and her family. 

Here are some insights to her speaking style that I included in my book, "The Rhetoric of Supreme Court Women."

Her speaking style is slow, meticulous and careful. Her communication is illustrative of her approach to the law: just what is needed. She tells her law clerks, “Don’t write sentences that people will have to re-read. Same is true of public speaking.” 

She says, “My effort was to speak slowly so that that ideas could be grasped.”  In her public speeches her style is professorial, hearkening back to her days as a law professor, first at Rutgers School of Law, briefly at Harvard Law School and at Columbia School of Law. 

In 2007 when she read two stinging dissents from the bench, to criticize the majority for opinions that she said jeopardize women's rights, she was indeed, deliberately making a statement. In one case, in which the court upheld the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act seven years after having struck down a similar state law, she noted that the Court was now “differently composed than it was when we last considered a restrictive abortion regulation.” 

In Ledbetter v. Goodyear, speaking for the three other dissenting justices, Justice Ginsburg's voice was even and measured, and the message was potent and immediately impactful. In this utterance she was speaking to, as she put it, “convey a message I thought was so right and proper.” 

In her dissent she described the Court’s reading of the law as “parsimonious” and added, “In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.” Lilly Ledbetter was a supervisor at Goodyear Tire and Rubber plant in Gadsden, Alabama, from 1979 until her retirement in 1998. For most of those years, she worked as an area manager, a position largely occupied by men. Initially, Ledbetter’s salary was in line with the salaries of men performing substantially similar work. Over time, however, her pay slipped in comparison to the pay of male area managers with equal or less seniority. 

I asked her why reading her dissent aloud felt like a powerful way to express her views. She told me: 

“Most often I do not announce. I write it out. But if I want to emphasize that the Court not only got it wrong, but egregiously so, reading aloud a dissent can have an immediate objective.”  

Only six times previous to 2007, in 13 years on the Court, did Justice Ginsburg read her dissent aloud, and never twice in one term. She told her audience at a lecture in 2007:  “I described from the bench two dissenting opinions. The first deplored the Court’s approval of a federal ban on so-called ‘partial-birth abortion.’  Departing from decades of precedent, the Court placed its imprimatur on an anti-abortion measure that lacked an exception safeguarding a woman’s health.  Next, I objected to the Court’s decision making it virtually impossible for victims of pay discrimination to mount a successful Title VII challenge.”  

The “immediate impact” of Justice Ginsburg’s oral dissent was realized in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear case.  She told me that “Several members of Congress responded within days after the Court’s decision was issued.”   With Lilly Ledbetter present, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law on January 29, 2009.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s public speaking is similar to her strategy on behalf of the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU in the 1970s: slowly, meticulously, carefully and just what is needed. She reflected on her life’s work and said, slowly and distinctly, “What a luxury I had to be an advocate for people who needed my services and  to work for a cause for society.”

RIP Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Thank you for your giant intellect and warm heart.

Nichola Gutgold is a professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Lehigh Valley


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