In praise of short women
To Ruth Bader Ginsburg, all five feet.
In this July 31, 2014 photo, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen in her chambers in at the Supreme Court in Washington.
In this July 31, 2014 photo, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen in her chambers in at the Supreme Court in Washington. [ CLIFF OWEN | AP ]
Published Sep. 19, 2020
Updated Sep. 19, 2020

In one old class photo going around the internet, the future Supreme Court Justice is sidelined in a sea of men. They stand head and shoulders above her, literally, but she’s staring into the camera that way she always stared into cameras. Not smiling, exactly, but there’s power, that go-to-hell je ne sais quoi, even then.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Friday at 87, was always little. She topped out at five feet tall, which is something we have in common.

Do you know what it’s like down here? It’s not a ton of fun. Plenty of short women try to look taller because our culture values height. Height equals competence. Height equals respect.

Except, some of us popped out tiny. Friends picked us last for sports and rested elbows on our heads. So we put on high heels and never took them off, intoxicated by the extra inches, emboldened by the lie that it made a difference.

We struggled to meet men in the eye. We were cute, and when the time came to be serious, it made people uneasy. Our feet spasmed, tendons twitching with the terrible truth that something was wrong with… all of it.

Ginsburg surely felt small sometimes. She said as much. She spoke about her discomfort in being the lone woman on the Supreme Court for several years during the 2000s, saying “The image to the public entering the courtroom was eight men, of a certain size, and then this little woman sitting to the side. That was not a good image for the public to see.”

But I like to think it was good, in the end. Ginsburg’s diminutive size was part of her legend. Had she looked different, taller, bigger, more imposing, less cute, would people have dressed babies like her for Halloween? Would they have juxtaposed her with Notorious B.I.G., used the word “towering” as an irony?

Maybe. Maybe we would have dressed babies like someone who fought so fervently for gender equality, who believed we should be legally unraveled from our own social constructs, who advocated for justice in everything from college admission to jury duty to workplace pay to military benefits. I don’t know.

Here’s the part where we say she wasn’t small at all, that she was huge, larger than life. That we can all be huge if we don’t limit ourselves.

But the truth is, she was small. Small is not a bad word. It’s just a word. Every kind of adjective for every kind of human being exists, and they all deserve the same shot in life. That’s the thing Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted us to know.

Being who we are is good for the world. Let’s remember that when pressing into the light of day, ankles sore and heads as high as they can possibly go. Even if it’s only five feet.