Rights are at risk without principled leadership in the US Supreme Court

To my three amazing sons,

I wanted to explain why I started to cry the other day. When the three of you looked at me with concern when my voice cracked. It wasn’t just about the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It was yet another moment the deep, almost existential, sadness I’ve felt ever since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. I’m hoping that this letter gives you some idea why I’ve been so busy recently, making phone calls to try to encourage other Americans in South Africa to vote in the upcoming election.

I started crying when we were huddled on the couch in our home in Johannesburg. You boys had been practicing complicated jumps onto cushions. I interrupted this to ask you to sit down with me and watch on my cell phone a short video about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life.

There she was in 1993, speaking in the White House Rose Garden after she was nominated by president Bill Clinton as the second woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice.

She got emotional giving her final thanks — to her mother, a woman who excelled at school, but who could not further her education because she had to work as a garment worker to pay for her brother’s education at Cornell University. Celia Amster Bader, Ruth’s mother, died at the age of 48, the day before Ginsburg graduated high school.


“I pray that I may be all that she would have been, had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve, and daughters are cherished as much as sons,” Ginsburg said.

It was that line that broke me. Because it conjured up the histories of women in my family, and the history of women in all families, and my profound sorrow that their life stories were limited by the conventions and laws of the times in which they lived.

It’s a travesty of unfathomable proportions that laws have historically been written by a select group of people to limit the rights of others. I think you’d say that I “never stop talking” about racism and how we must stand up and speak out to ensure the rights of black people are equal to those of white people.

But if I’m honest, what you don’t hear me talk about as much are the rights of women and girls. And right now I’m wondering if I’ve been too silent. Ginsburg defined feminism as “the notion that we could each be free to develop our own talents and not be held back by man-made barriers”.

I’ve taken for granted that by knowing me and what I stand for, that you’ll grow up to be proudly feminist men, and know that your liberation is tied up in mine. As Ginsburg said: “It’s not women’s liberation, it’s women’s and men’s liberation.”

The principle that my liberation is tied up in yours is a principle deeply rooted in South Africa’s history. I see now that I need to put that principle right at the heart of what I’m teaching you as a mother. Because what the Black Lives Matter movement and Ginsburg’s death has revealed to me is the precariousness of any gains we thought we’d achieved in American society. And how we can never be silent about our histories of injustice, and our commitment to equity.

I am a woman. I am also intelligent, independent and capable. I am a complete, full human being. Yet many of the laws in the US, as in South Africa and throughout the world, have all too often been created by men to limit the rights of women. Ginsburg helped make sure women in the US could live, work and make decisions on their own. She helped pave the way so women in the US could:

●  Get jobs that used to be open only to men;

●  Keep a job if they got pregnant;

●  Open a bank account or get a credit card without a man;

●  Start a business or get a business loan without a man; and

●  Buy a house without a man.

Can you even imagine me not getting a job because I am a woman? Isn’t it absurd that had I lived some decades earlier, I might not be able to control my money or start a business on my own? It’s the stuff of dystopian novels. The stuff of nightmares. Just like the tenets of white supremacy, the tenets of sexism are part of the brutal history of the US. That’s why I wanted you to learn about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and what she helped achieve in her lifetime.

Without strong, principled leadership in the Supreme Court, I believe fundamental, inalienable rights are at risk under the leadership of Trump and the Republican Party.

This is why I’ve been volunteering with Democrats Abroad, the official Democratic Party arm for the millions of US citizens living outside the United States. It is a 100% volunteer-driven organisation with members in 190 countries. There are an estimated 6.5-million eligible American voters living overseas, but only 7% cast their ballots in 2016. In South Africa, Democrats Abroad is working to ensure that as many of the estimated 30 000 Americans here will exercise their right to vote. In 2016, the presidential election was decided by fewer than 80 000 votes. There is a very real possibility that the overseas vote could decide the 2020 US presidential election.

As my sons, I wanted you to see how I’m volunteering in a democratic election process in the most important presidential election of my lifetime. I’ve explained the idea of “phone banking”, and you’ve sat with me as I call people and encourage them to make a voting plan. Democrats Abroad South Africa have issued a Voting Guidance for Americans in South Africa to assist in helping get out the vote, and are encouraging Americans in South Africa to: 

1. Apply for their overseas ballot today, if they haven’t already;

2. Check their individual state’s timeframes and processes and make a voting plan. Visit www.fvap.gov or www.votefromabroad.org;

3. Vote as soon as possible; and

4. Contact [email protected] to volunteer or with any questions.

Though the election closes on 3 November, we’re encouraging people to vote now. Why so early? Because every state has different rules, timeframes and procedures. Because Covid-19 is creating delivery problems for independent courier companies. Because of the capacity and politicisation of the US Postal Service. Because of misinformation campaigns perpetuated by Republicans. And because the US consulates in South Africa also have limited days and hours for ballot drop off.

I’ve been energised by the phone banking. You’ve overheard me talking to other Americans who want to vote, but haven’t known how to cast their ballot from overseas. On WhatsApp, volunteers are finding encouragement and hope that our calls might lead to votes cast for leaders who will stop the eradication of fundamental human rights in the US.

And when I get tired, I just think about the sacrifices Ruth Bader Ginsburg made as she continued working through the pain of pancreatic cancer. If she could carry the weight of the future of American democracy on her frail shoulders, even to the end, the least I can do is try to make sure everyone exercises their right to vote.

“That woman did not just spend the last couple years of her life fighting, in pain, to buy us time, for y’all to punk out now,” said Texas-based community organiser Jaquita Wilson in a Facebook Live video. “That’s not what she did that for. So get your crying and everything done … because that woman did not live the rest of her life in pain so you could cry about her death and still sit and do nothing.”

Martin Luther King Jr reminded us that: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Seven years ago, in a famous voting-rights dissent opinion, Ginsburg elaborated on this phrase, adding this is true only “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion”.

Today, she leaves the work for me and for you. Not just to stop the erosion of rights we had already gained, but in bending the arc even further to forge a new path of liberty and justice for all.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Gretchen Wilson-Prangley
Gretchen Wilson-Prangley is an American social entrepreneur and writer who has lived in Johannesburg since 2004.

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