Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Of Supreme Court Justices, Presidential Nominees and Enigmatic Novelists

This week's column looks at the different ways we talk about women and why we focus on the the particular things that we do.

As a lost 20-something, I’ve taken to devouring pieces on important female figures, hoping to glean a sense of direction from the generic things successful people cite as advice when they’re interviewed. But it’s no secret that we’re often hard pressed to find entirely flattering portrayals of accomplished women – so this week’s column examines how we portray different women. From Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who struck a fantastic note by writing about herself, to Hillary Clinton whose entire life is up for scrutiny and finally, Elena Ferrante, the Italian novelist who just had her real identity exposed by a nosy journalist.


Roadmap to womanhood

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attends the lunch session of The Women's Conference in Long Beach, California October 26, 2010. Credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attends the lunch session of The Women’s Conference in Long Beach, California October 26, 2010. Credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

“In every good marriage,” she counseled, “it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” It is difficult to select the most meaningful parts of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s article in the New York Times because she said a lot of things that challenge many prevalent notions about success and women. Take, for example, this piece of advice, originally from her “savvy mother-in-law” and now Ginsburg’s to impart to her many, many readers. Her explanation for the advice that she has followed “assiduously” in her marriage and at the workplace – “When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.” When I first read this, I thought about how I would struggle to accept this advice from anyone else and did to a certain extent with Ginsburg too, but because of who she is, the article warranted a second, closer read. Eventually, what I got from it was: pointing out that something is wrong may give you the satisfaction of being right but will not necessarily foster a conversation about how to move forward from a difference in opinion.

Ginsburg’s advice is also tricky to put into practice. Culturally, women are expected to be the ones who put in the emotional work of resolving issues, being supportive of others, the ones who bear the brunt when a “thoughtless” word is spoken. Women are supposed to rise above the fray because ‘men don’t know any better.’ “Being a little deaf” taken solely in this context, runs the risk of conforming to gender roles. However, I’d like to believe that Ginsburg does something else entirely – since we can’t completely do away with the gendered expectations of our society, finding a negotiable space is essential and does not have to mean conceding defeat.

Of course, this negotiable space is entirely dependent on whether we have a willing participant who will view women as equal. For Ginsburg, it was her “supersmart, exuberant, ever-loving spouse”, Martin D. Ginsburg. By acknowledging, in no uncertain terms, that her husband played a large role in her getting the Supreme Court judgeship, Ginsburg again managed to pull off something that would not go down well coming from most other people. Because of how often it still happens, there is a palpable wariness involved when it comes to giving men credit for their wives’ achievements. But Ginsburg, effortlessly wove it into the narrative of support she presents in the article.

By citing advice from her mother, her father-in-law, her mother-in-law, the support of her husband and her professors, Ginsburg situates herself firmly in a supportive, familial network, crediting them for her success without detracting from her own integral role in it. She also manages to pick at American individualism by simply refusing to succumb  to it. Ginsburg is refreshingly clear on the fact that her life is the product of a collaborative effort.

That collaboration is how she managed to get through law school while raising a baby and then a Supreme Court clerkship with a 4-year-old. Ginsburg, who attended law school at a time when only 3% of American law students were women, did it with a child in tow – attending classes and studying till 4pm and bathing, feeding, caring for her daughter for the remainder of the day. According to Ginsburg “work life balance” wasn’t a phrase yet but that’s what she was practicing. Her take on the experience is simple, “Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.”

If, like me, you approach this piece wondering ‘how to be a woman’ you’ll get the simple facts of a life that doesn’t conform to contemporary (and very recent) notions of success – I wouldn’t dream of going to law school if I had a baby. Though Ginsburg never says “women can have it all,” she provides an anecdotal roadmap to how she achieved the things that she wanted to, which undoubtedly involved giving up some other things she may have wanted, but on the whole you can’t deny that Ginsburg continues to lead a remarkable life.


The ‘politician’ versus the ‘wife’

Hillary Clinton. Credit: Reuters

Hillary Clinton. Credit: Reuters

While Ginsburg’s model of womanhood is applauded and never actively scrutinised, Hillary Clinton has not had that luxury, thanks in large part to her husband, Bill Clinton. The New York Times recently published an article titled, ‘How Hillary Clinton Grappled With Bill Clinton’s Infidelity, and His Accusers’ which dug deep into the Clintons’ history, particularly how they handled Gennifer Flowers’ announcement of her affair with Bill.

Betsey Wright, Bill’s former chief of staff said this when the New York Times contacted her for the piece, “It is reprehensible that The New York Times is joining The National Enquirer and Donald Trump by dredging up irrelevant slime from the past.” While I’m not inclined to use such strong words, the piece did have me wondering what the point of it was.

The piece focuses on figuring out if – and how deeply – Hillary was involved in the smear campaigns against the women who accused Bill of cheating on his wife with them. Describing the aftermath of the Flowers case, the author presented Hillary as brusque and politically-focused as opposed to emotionally compromised , “But stand by she did, holding any pain or doubts in check as the campaign battled to keep the Clintons’ political aspirations alive.”

He continued to build this image, “Outwardly, she remained stoic and defiant,” and then added, “But privately, she embraced the Clinton campaign’s aggressive strategy of counterattack: Women who claimed to have had sexual encounters with Mr. Clinton would become targets of digging and discrediting — tactics that women’s rights advocates frequently denounce.” Here, the author seems intent on portraying Hillary, the shrewd politician, who can put aside her emotions and personal equation with her husband for the greater professional good. He even folds in criticism of her treatment of fellow women but fails to qualify why this is important information to know about the Democratic US presidential nominee.  

The piece concludes by citing the aftermath of the “Lewinsky affair” and now veers towards portraying an emotional Hillary who doubted her marriage but then overcame those doubts. As friends wondered about the state of the Clintons’ marriage, Hillary told a friend, “they’re [Hillary and Bill] connected in every way imaginable, she feels strongly about him and family and Chelsea and marriage, and she’s just got to try to work it through.”

The same friend’s documents also provided a “direct quotation from Mrs. Clinton: “Most people in this town have no pain threshold.”” The piece struck a confused note throughout its entirety, unwittingly highlighting the challenges of writing about a female public figure. Hillary, the politician was put up for scrutiny in this article that somehow still managed to conclude with Hillary, the wife.  Ginsburg’s acknowledgment of her luck in life seems even truer when compared to Hillary’s – though both women are in highly public positions of power, only one of them has been repeatedly subjected to searing public scrutiny. The piece takes it for granted that there are contradictions between two of Hillary’s personas and that these contradictions are relevant enough to be investigated ahead of the US presidential election. The author seems confused about melding together the politician and the wife, betraying the fact that we struggle to put together multiple personas for women even though most occupy a wide variety of roles.


Anonymity – “To relinquish it would be very painful.”

One of Elena Ferrante's books was recently adapted into a successful movie. Credit: Televisione Streaming/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

One of Elena Ferrante’s books was recently adapted into a successful movie. Credit: Televisione Streaming/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Ginsburg and Clinton are not the only women to have their identities dissected in the past week. The literary world has been in an uproar over the unwanted revelation of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s real identity. Journalist Claudio Gatti claims to have figured out the identity of the woman behind the pen-name Elena Ferrante – a best-selling author whose translated works have also proven to be exceedingly popular. Since this piece focuses on adverse reactions to the revelation of her identity, I will not expand on Gatti’s hypothesis here. I confess, I have never read Ferrante’s work but despite that it is not hard to know that those who enjoy her novels do so for their literary content, not the identity of the author. Though, her most popular works, a series of four novels, written in the first person and said to draw on personal experiences, put a question mark over the boundary between the fictional content and the author’s identity and actual experiences. Especially for Ferrante, who has been very clear about her desire to protect her identity and privacy. In the past, Ferrante told Vanity Fair, “I simply decided once and for all, over 20 years ago, to liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety and the urge to be a part of that circle of successful people, those who believe they have won who-knows-what. This was an important step for me. Today I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.”

So then why couldn’t Gatti respect that need for a private sphere? The tension in this case also stems from the historical context of women publishing under pseudonyms, usually male ones, because women were bounded by the private, domestic sphere. Gatti’s revelation seems partly to stem from the fact that he doesn’t think a public figure, especially a female one, is entitled to the comforts of the domestic sphere that she herself sought out.

As one of the many responses in the Guardian notes, Gatti’s main argument for his exposure of Ferrante is the discrepancy between the narratives and life she presents in her work and that of the woman who actually wrote those books. He argues that the woman who writes as Ferrante has somehow tricked or lied to her readers. Again, we circle back to this fixation with the notion of women having one persona with no contradictions whatsoever. Apparently, being a multifaceted human being is the sole domain of men.

The author of the piece, Deborah Orr describes his motivations, “Gatti now seems to find it unfair that a woman may have chosen to write herself out of her own writing, largely, one suspects, because such self-effacement is alien to him. I daresay he would not be able to comprehend the stitching of a patchwork quilt, just for the sake of making beauty. If you want to work, achieve money and acclaim, then play by our rules. That seems to be Gatti’s horrible message.”

As Ginsburg notes early in her piece, we live in a world where it is no longer outrageous for girls to want to be lawyers and Supreme Court justices when they grow up. But it is also commonplace to struggle with how to write about successful women and navigate societal expectations from them. Ginsburg managed to present an encouraging account of having it all in her piece while Clinton and Ferrante’s portrayals in the media have expressly focused on stripping down their public personas in a way that asserts the personal sphere is the only one that matters if you’re a woman. These aren’t particularly new issues but we’d be wrong to think that their constant recurrence belies their importance.

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at [email protected]
If you’d like to receive regular updates from this column, please consider subscribing to Name-Place-Animal-Thing.

Join The Discussion