Ruth Ginsberg, Stereotypes and Actions vs. Words

The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg yesterday has seen tributes pour in for this pioneering woman. Ginsberg spent much of her career breaking down barriers, culminating in her long term of public service as a Justice on the nation’s highest court.

Interestingly, Ginsberg was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. And while most people know her, most people don’t know who the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court was.  Who was that and which President appointed her?

Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman on the Supreme Court and was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

O’Connor was older than Ginsberg. Like Ginsberg, her career was distinguished and no less groundbreaking, maybe even more so since she came to national attention some time before Ginsberg did. Yet, she is not as well-known and, among some, is not perceived as a pioneer in the way Ginsberg is perceived. Why would that be?

In part, it’s because O’Connor was appointed by Reagan, a conservative Republican.  And the stereotype has been that conservatives are somehow less in favor of equality or are somehow misogynist. And combine that with the fact that O’Connor was not known as an activist judge and her career is somehow counted less in public perception. Ginsberg for whatever reason became the darling of liberals and is promoted as an icon that broke barriers. There is no doubt she led a distinguished life and had a distinguished career. But no more groundbreaking than O’Connor.

Which leads to the broader question of perception and stereotypes—which Ginsberg personally battled and professionally fought against for her whole career. Ginsberg fought against discrimination which are often rooted in stereotypes that are not true.


And in the case of gender and racial equality, stereotype of conservatives (at least as accused by liberals) of being against women and minority rights are also not true. But don’t take that statement as true, any more than a statement saying conservatives are terrible because they discriminate.  What people say gives a perception of them compared to others. But it’s really the actions that matter. And words mean nothing if they don’t match actions.

So we need to reflect on actions. And to do so, let’s examine some barrier-breaking moments where conservatives helped push women and minorities to positions they previously had not been able to hold. In addition to Reagan’s appointment of Sandra O’Connor as the first woman to the Supreme Court that we have noted, here are just a few others:

  • The first black US Senator since Reconstruction, Edward Brooke, was a Republican.
  • The first black US Senator since Reconstruction from a state in the ‘old South’, Tim Scott, is a conservative Republican.
  • The first Asian-American US Senator, S.I. Hiyakawa, was a conservative Republican.
  • The first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, was appointed by a Republican President, George H. W. Bush
  • The first African-American and also the first woman to head the President’s National Security Council, Condoleezza Rice, was appointed by George W. Bush.
  • Colin Powell was also the first black Secretary of State, and was appointed by George W. Bush. He was succeeded by the first black woman to be Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who was also appointed by Bush. Prior to that time, no person of color had held that critical position and then two held it in successive terms.
  • The first Hispanic Attorney General, Roberto Gonzalez, was appointed by a Republican.
  • The first woman to head the government of a major world power was from the Conservative Party in Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher. She was re-elected Prime Minister several times. The second woman Prime Minister in Great Britain’s history, Teresa May, was also from the Conservative Party.
  • The only female Prime Minister of Germany, Angela Merkel, is from the more conservative national party in Germany.

The list could go on. The point being that conservatives have a history of women and minorities in positions of authority that have shattered barriers; a history that is quite different than the narrative promoted by others.

That is not by any means to say that there have not been liberal and/or Democratic women or minorities that have broken barriers and advanced progress, President Obama being the most obvious. But it is to say that the stereotypical cliché of conservatives not fighting for racial or gender equality is a political ‘talking point’ that has become perception, but doesn’t have an actual basis in fact.

Yet there is one significant difference worth noting. As a broad rule, conservatives tend to be against government intervention or mandates, including affirmative action. Most conservatives are against affirmative action and that is one reason they are accused of being racist. Conservatives don’t want quotas and want rules against discrimination enforced, just not by mandating a number. And so one of the big differences in the examples noted above is that none of them were appointed based on their gender or race.  There was no declaration from some politician that “I’m going to appoint a woman” or “I’m going to appoint a (minority)” or “we need a woman to head our party”. Each of the examples noted above held their office based on their ability and merit. They were picked out of a pool that included everyone, not a candidate pool that included only women or only minorities. And they got their jobs because they were the best candidate. In at least one case, that of Colin Powell, his abilities were obvious enough that he served in multiple positions in both Republican and Democratic Administrations.

Some things are repeated so much that they come to be taken at face value. However, looking at actual actions is more important than words. And, ultimately, if we look for the best people for the jobs at hand, then not only will we have better qualified people but we will have people who ‘represent America’.

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