Ruth Bader Ginsburg

ACLU Apologizes for Bowdlerizing Ruth Bader Ginsburg Quote

A misguided effort to update a Notorious RBG quote backfired.

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The New York Times reports:

Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Monday that he regretted that a tweet sent out recently by his organization altered the words of a well-known quote by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The A.C.L.U. tweet, which was sent out Sept. 18, changed Justice Ginsburg's words, replacing each of her references to women with "person," "people" or a plural pronoun in brackets. Justice Ginsburg, who died last year, is a revered figure in liberal and feminist circles and directed the A.C.L.U.'s Women's Rights Project from its founding in 1972 until she became a federal judge in 1980.

The tweet by the A.C.L.U. occasioned mockery and some anger on social media from feminists and others.

"We won't be altering people's quotes," Mr. Romero said in an interview on Monday evening. "It was a mistake among the digital team. Changing quotes is not something we ever did."

The original quote, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg's 1993 Supreme Court confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, reads:

The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman's life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.

The ACLU tweet modified the quote to read:

The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a [person's] life, to [their] well-being and dignity. . . . When government controls that decision for [people], [they are] being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for [their] own choices.

Progressive NYT columnist Michelle Goldberg commented:

This was a mistake for two reasons, one that's easy to talk about, and one that's hard.

The easy one is this: It's somewhat Orwellian to rewrite historical utterances to conform to modern sensitivities. No one that I'm aware of used gender-neutral language to talk about pregnancy and abortion in 1993; it wasn't until 2008 that Thomas Beatie became famous as what headlines sometimes called the "First Pregnant Man." There's a difference between substituting the phrase "pregnant people" for "pregnant women" now, and pretending that we have always spoken of "pregnant people."

What's more difficult to discuss is how making Ginsburg's words gender-neutral alters their meaning. That requires coming to terms with a contentious shift in how progressives think and talk about sex and reproduction. Changing Ginsburg's words treats what was once a core feminist insight — that women are oppressed on the basis of their reproductive capacity — as an embarrassing anachronism. The question then becomes: Is it?