Editor’s Note: Louise W. Knight is an author and historian. She is a biographer of Jane Addams and is at work on a forthcoming biography of Sarah and Angelina Grimké. The views expressed here are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN. Watch CNN Films’ “RBG” on Sunday, September 9 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
“I ask no favor for my sex. … All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
“RBG,” a film about the life and work of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, premiered Monday on CNN. The documentary, which aired in theaters over the summer, opens with these words, a feisty feminist statement from the now-iconic figure known by many as the “Notorious RBG.”
“All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” She says it with conviction, looking straight at the camera. Clearly, she believes every word.
Halfway through the film, she repeats the statement – as viewers, we sense it is very much a personal mantra for Ginsburg – but this time we learn that these aren’t her words. They are the words of Sarah Grimké.
Many who view the film may well be asking: Who is Sarah Grimké? As an obvious influence on Ginsburg, was she an earlier woman judge? A pioneer, before Ginsburg, in feminist law?
RBG: Commentary on Ruth Bader Ginsburg
She was neither of these things but desired to be both with all her heart. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1792, she was the daughter of the chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court and the sister of three lawyers, one of whom became a judge. Along with her sister Angelina, Sarah did become a force for reform in the 19th century; they were the first female agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and their anti-slavery and feminist activism profoundly influenced the generations of future reformers.
Ginsburg’s affection for Sarah Grimke’s defiant statement makes sense. Though born 141 years apart, both women encountered obstacles because of their gender; both women insisted that “our brethren” take their feet “off our necks.” And they both gravitated toward the law. Grimké wanted to become a lawyer and a judge, too. She wanted to become what Ginsburg became.
One of Grimké’s early disappointments was when her father refused to let her study with her brothers as they prepared to attend Yale College before serving apprenticeships in the law. She was hurt her father had so little belief in her intelligence, though in truth Yale would never have admitted her.
Ginsburg’s situation was only a bit more welcoming. She was able to earn a college degree and be admitted to Harvard Law School, but in the 1950s neither she nor the eight other women students there were exactly welcome. As the film reveals, the dean asked them why they were taking places that men could be filling.
Sarah Grimké, unable to pursue the law, formed a new dream at 18 – to become a minister. Raised an Episcopalian, she was “born again” in 1811 before her 19th birthday under the powerful preaching of Presbyterian minister Henry Kollock. At the same moment, she believed, God called her to the ministry. She moved to Philadelphia and joined the Quaker faith. Other Protestant sects – the Baptists, Methodists and African Methodist Episcopalians – allowed women to preach but refused to ordain them. To be a minister in the Quaker faith, one simply rose often in meeting and spoke God’s message. Grimké could make herself a minister that way, and she did.
This trait of imagining the impossible was key to Ginsburg’s career as well. At every turn in the road, the film shows, Ginsburg simply decided she could do something and did it. When she entered law school as a married student, she had a 14-month-old daughter and a husband battling an illness, yet she made law review her second year.
Both women faced down seemingly insurmountable professional obstacles. When no law firm would hire her after she graduated law school, Ginsburg earned a clerkship and then became a law school professor who eventually led a fight for equal pay and equal rights for women and men. Having known the bitter taste of sex discrimination, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and, as its general counsel, helped write and argue groundbreaking US Supreme Court cases that today still protect many of women’s equal rights. Ginsburg turned a bitter personal disappointment into a triumph that benefitted her sex.
For Grimké, the unsurmountable obstacle was the public shaming to which she was subjected. One day while she was preaching, Philadelphia’s most powerful Quaker elder, a man who had been privately opposing her for some time, rose and said that he hoped she was finished speaking. That night Grimké wrote in her diary: “It was entirely a breach of Discipline in him to publicly silence a minister.” She immediately left Philadelphia and a year later, in 1837, wrote a series of public letters on the equality of the sexes.
In the second letter she wrote: “I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright.” The letters, published that fall in a reform newspaper and the following year as a book, “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes,” set forth landmark arguments for women’s equal rights in the United States. Like Ginsburg, Grimké too had turned a bitter personal disappointment into a triumph that benefited her sex for decades to come.
Grimké never forgot her dream of becoming a lawyer and a judge. When she was 60 she considered applying to law school but was told that no law school would admit a woman. Soon after, she visited Washington and was taken to see the empty chambers of the Supreme Court, in the basement of the Senate. In those days, anyone could visit the rooms if the court was not in session. Someone invited her to sit in the chief justice’s chair. Taking a seat, she found herself saying, “Who knows but this chair may one day be occupied by a woman.” She described the moment in a letter to a friend. “The brethren laughed heartily,” she noted, “nevertheless it may be a true prophecy.”
Grimké’s prophecy for a female chief justice, which Ginsburg heartily endorses in the film, has yet to become reality, but with the inspiration offered by the story of Ginsburg’s life, brilliantly captured in “RBG,” there can be no doubt that the prophecy will come true.