by Isabela Betoret
Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.
– Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who may be the most well-known US Supreme Court Judge in the world, feels like someone scratching at an already open wound. The underrepresentation of women in sectors from media to academia has been well documented. Leslie and Cimpian go as far as suggesting that women are underrepresented in any sector that is perceived to require raw ability and talent over effort.
Senator Mitch McConnel, in the same statement where he offered condolences to Justice Ginsburg’s family, said that congress would waste no time in approving Trump’s pick to replace her. As Justice Ginsburg was only the second of four women ever appointed to the Supreme Court, followed by Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan, the odds are not in favour of the fifth being next. With McConnel in control of the senate, it is possible that a conservative pick could be approved before the election in November and a possible change in leadership, shifting the priorities of the court for generations to come.
And so, the wound reopens a little, we lose a woman in one of the highest positions of power. A role model to millions of female students and law graduates aspiring to the foremost jobs in the legal system, as well as to millions of women who benefited from the closer scrutiny Ginsburg gave to laws that affected them.
The women who occupy spaces in politics and conflict seem to be, largely, well known. Female heads of state are criticised for their every move, and it is far too easy to remember all their names because of the often-outrageous coverage they receive. Female professors, those who survived in a discipline that was for so many years hostile to our existence within it, are memorable. Though they are perceived to be less naturally talented, their brilliance has shone through years of doubt directed at them. Like Justice Ginsburg, they help millions find inspiration and courage by virtue of their work being published.
Though in the years since the women’s liberation movement there has been an influx of women into male-dominated fields, this was not often looked at in a positive light. Two studies one in 2016 and one in 2018 revealed that eighty percent of surveyed female European MPs had experienced acts of psychological violence; from harassment and misogyny to explicit threats of physical harm. Martin Van Creveld wrote that the more women who enter a profession the fewer men would remain due to its decrease in value because of ‘Feminisation’. Though he was referring explicitly to the Military, the roles for women in conflict areas has remained low. Women appear to be attacked for daring to enter the field, and then face constant threats and doubt once inside.
For all the inspiration they provide, women in positions of power in the realm of conflict and politics are rare. Statistics from the United Nations are staggering. Between 1992 and 2018 only thirteen percent of negotiators, three percent of mediators, and four percent of signatories in major peace processes were women; numbers which do not seem to have improved in the last couple of years. Before 2018 under fifty percent of humanitarian responses to conflict took into account gendered data. Studies have shown an increase of misogynistic and sexist speech by world leaders has increased the rate of violence committed against women. In January 2019 only 24.3 percent of parliamentary seats globally were held by women, and 19 women served as Head of State or Government. Only 21.7 per cent of Heads of Higher Institutions were women in 2017. And in the United Kingdom, women in academia were paid, on average, 15.1 per cent less than men in 2019.
With such numbers is it surprising that women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg are so widely admired? Despite the lack-lustre representation, there is now precedent for women in the world of conflict. Ginsburg did for the law what many women did in other fields. Marie Colvin for journalists and war correspondents; Condoleezza Rice, the first female Africa-American Secretary of State; Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential nominee for a major political party. But we must remember that for those doors to be opened the women who first walked through them had to live in conflict.
Ginsburg had to fight against blatant sexism in order to make it to the very top of the legal profession. She was demoted from her job at a social security firm when pregnant with her first child, leading her to conceal her second pregnancy almost to term. She was one of only nine female students at Harvard Law School in a class of five hundred, and every day her place there was questioned because of her gender. She worked on the legal side of the Women’s Liberation Movement, being one of the first to argue gender discrimination cases in the Supreme Court—where she had to teach the justices what that meant. Despite facing cancer five times, she only missed oral arguments twice due to illness. Many other women balance motherhood and the expectations of society with their careers and ambitions.
Representation is not enough without inclusion. Tokenism will always fall short, and it will never give the minds of women the credit they deserve. We do not fight to have a woman be placed on a position of power because she is a woman; rather, we argue that she belongs there because of her brain, of her ability, her passion, and these should not be devalued because of her gender.
Self-belief, it would seem, is not an attractive quality in a woman. We are constantly forced into being humble and modest until we stop believing in all the things we are capable of. Women are now represented, if poorly, in conflict resolution and politics. Women have always been a part of the history of war, be it in the home front or on the battlefield—but femininity is often absent, both in men and women, in this field. To survive in the world of conflict we must harden our edges and adopt many of the qualities of the masculine workforce we enter.
According to a study by Krause and Bränfors, those precious few instances where women are sitting at the negotiating table during peace processes tend to end in a more durable peace. The same study found that ‘peace agreements signed by women show a higher number of agreement provisions aimed at political reform and a higher implementation rate of these provisions.’ Through the Coronavirus Pandemic countries led by women were said to have a better response to the crisis. The answer does not necessarily lie in their gender or biology, women are not genetically pre-determined to make more effective leaders. Helen Lewis argues that a shift in leadership style, away from the strongman, the traditional masculine leader in the time of uncertainty (be it male or female) is occurring. A change of perspective is suddenly welcome, and it would appear many new ideas and styles are being brought forth by women—but more importantly, people seem to be listening.
If our field could do with more women, it could also do with the qualities of individual women, not merely having us imitate what has already been done in order to have a seat at the table. Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg we can teach those around us why our perspective is unique, and both men and women can benefit from it. Despite Van Creveld’s objections, a change of perspective may not be so wholly disastrous.
Women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg matter and we feel their loss so acutely because there are few examples for us to look up to. Few encouragements to put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—and have the courage to say: this is what I think, and I know it has value; I know it is good, and you will listen to it not because I am a woman, but because what I have to say matters.
Justice Ginsburg once said ‘I think I was born under a very bright star.’ Ginsburg knew what her life meant, and she believed in all she had achieved. Not only was she proud of her legacy, but she also inspired women all over the world to be proud of their own accomplishments. The remedy to the pain, and the only way to close the wounds left behind, is not for one woman to take her place—but for all of us to do so. For every single one of us to take the inspiration she gave and believe in our own potential. As Justice Ginsburg once replied when asked when there would be enough women in the Supreme Court: ‘When there are nine.’
Isabela Betoret is the Outreach Coordinator in charge of the Women In Writing Mentoring Scheme. The Scheme is an opportunity for women undertaking an MA at King’s College London to interact with a network of similar-minded people, build a community, become familiar with the world of academic publishing, and improve confidence in their writing skills. The Scheme exists to be the outstretched hand welcoming you to our community, the rest is up to you. If you would like to know more about Women In Writing or apply to the scheme you can do so here.