Over Dinner

Some women get erased a little at a time, some all at once. Some reappear. Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story, the genealogy, the rights of man, the rule of law. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.
— Rebecca Solnit

If you could invite any living person to a dinner party, and you knew this person would accept, who would you invite?

I used to be stymied by this question.

But over the past year, since I’ve begun courting the company of women, I feel confident in my response.

There are numerous women alive today with whom I would love to break bread: Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Margaret Atwood, Judith Butler, Nancy Chodorow, Barbara Ehrenreich, Alison Bechdel, Roxanne Gay, Jessica Valenti…

But my answer is: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

My maternal grandmother, not quite 5 feet tall, was also named Ruth, and she too kept her birth name in the middle of her signature for her entire life. Had she lived, RCH would be a little older than RBG is today, and I would love to serve them both, love to watch them interact.

But the deceased can’t come to dinner.

After my grandfather died, I spent many of my teenage years crashing on my grandmother’s couch, and yet I never talked with her, woman to woman. I never asked her any direct questions about her past, never asked her about her feelings, and pushed away her perspective, even when she imposed it on me by reciting verses from Revelations. By the time I was an adult, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

When I left for college, I couldn’t afford to give thought to what I was leaving behind.

In my mid-twenties, I took all my young children to see Grandma at her Care Facility in San Gabriel, and I have pictures of her holding them. But by then, it was too late to have the conversations I craved.

I wouldn’t make that mistake with Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

If RBG would come to dinner, I would make all of Grandma’s favorite recipes and serve her, my daughters, and all my closest women friends on Grandma’s china. And I would ask her question after annoying question. At the outset, I would choose themes she’s addressed publicly before, pushing her to delve further, hoping eventually the conversation would take off on it’s own. This might bore her to tears, but I would serve her more wine, and keep her late into the night, until she fell asleep on my couch.

I love that you can be friends with people you wildly disagree with. Was this ever a challenge for you?

Consistent challenging exercise keeps us not only physically and mentally fit, but I learned from you that it can help a woman feel a sense of agency and power. Is there any time you didn’t privilege your physical fitness?

My grandmother had five children with her husband, and she was both the primary caregiver and the primary breadwinner. She paid off legal debts from lies she discovered after his death, yet she never complained, protested the laws, fought the system or identified as a feminist. I am personally grateful you fought against restrictions most women accepted. It makes me wonder if you had any close women friends your age you could confide in early in your professional career. Did you have women friends who had your back, that you could vent to, who were on your side?

You’ve talked about how marginalized groups won’t have equal respect until we demand it, that it won’t ever be shared graciously, that no one gives up power without resistance. You took on gender discrimination cases like a hit list, before most of our culture thought change was possible. What dominant ideology masks the greatest discrimination most of us don’t see today?

My grandmother taught me the song of the prophetess Deborah, the fourth Judge of pre-monarchic Israel and the only female judge mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. She told me she Deborah is the only woman in the Bible recognized for her own merit, rather than for her relationship to a man. I know you were raised with this same Bible, with these same stories. Did you see Deborah as a role model? How much influence did her story have on what you felt you could do?

Incremental change is the most sustainable, but it’s so difficult to maintain patience. How do you maintain hope that your efforts will contribute to the tide of radical social change in the arc toward justice? Can you share with me about a time you felt despair?

Did you participate in consciousness raising in the 1970’s?

I love how you credit two of your early college professors from your years as a government major at Cornell  for the way you learned to interpret and move in the world. You say that Vladimir Nabokov taught you to use words to paint pictures. And when your independent studies adviser, Robert E. Cushman, hired you as a research assistant, awakening your understanding that the cold war was betraying our most fundamental values, you learned that legal skills could help make things better. You have used your own words to paint pictures to change laws that have altered the way America sees race, class, gender and sexual orientation. Did you ever want to be a writer?

You’ve demonstrated that hard work, discipline and surviving on little sleep can actually be a sustainable, productive lifestyle. For all those who still tell me this isn’t a viable modality, may I show them your picture?

Having the Notorious RBG to dinner would be a dream come true, and I would jump at the opportunity. But it wouldn't replace the conversations I never had with RCH, the first feminist I knew.


Michelle Dowd