Women's Rights

Dissenting Rhetoric

Popular image from the ‘Notorious RBG’ campaign

The Role of a Dissent

Women are not provided with any rights or protection in the US Constitution

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was already a force to be reckoned with, but her new place on the bench of the United States Supreme Court provided her with the power and the platform to continue her fight for equality, change legislation, and right many wrongs that women had been facing for centuries because the Constitution did not provide protection or equal treatment for the rights of women.

Justice Ginsburg has become well-known in recent years for her powerful dissents. In the Supreme Court, a dissenting opinion is an opportunity for justices that were part of the minority opinion to explain why they disagree with the majority on that particular verdict. These dissents are verbal and/or written statements from the minority that serve a crucial role in our system of government.

“Judicial dissents do more than refute the conclusions reached in the majority opinion; they also denaturalize the very rhetorical strategies used to convey that opinion, displaying a different set of generic characteristics”

Erin Rand

When Ginsburg dissents, she wants to be heard. She believes that dissents should be made with the goal of changing the court’s mind. She explains, “On occasion, a dissent will be so persuasive that it attracts the votes necessary to become the opinion of the Court,” so the goal is not to just make it known that she disagrees with the rest of the Court; instead, it is to explain why she believes the Court made the wrong decision.

Rhetoric of Ginsburg’s Dissents

In Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinions from the Supreme Court Cases, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, as well as a few speeches she has made over the years, it becomes clear that Ginsburg’s rhetoric is a powerful tool in her fight for Women’s Rights.

Justice Ginsburg’s ability to reshape America’s idea of a woman is greatly due to her unique and impactful rhetorical style. As explained in the book, My Own Words:

“Her voice, in public and on paper, is modest and measured, yet her style is distinctive and her point is often captured in a memorable quotation from someone else or a notable and quotable pithy quip of her own”

This stylistic choice of Ginsburg’s to include quotations from others or something memorable she once said, is a tactic to appeal to ethos. Because she is a woman, and she began her career in a time when women were often not taken seriously, Ginsburg had to find a way to prove her credibility. She quoted others in the field, often men, to give her argument the credibility that she did not inherently have as a woman.

Judge Florence Ellinwood Allen

One example of Ginsburg using someone else’s words to add to the credibility of her own argument can be found in her 2006 speech titled, Women’s Progress at the Bar and on the Bench. In this speech, Ginsburg describes the difficulties women experienced when trying to join the legal profession across most of the 1900’s. Instead of relying only on her personal experience, Ginsburg speaks about Judge Florence Ellinwood Allen and her unique experience as a woman trying to make her way in the legal profession. Instead of only speaking on her own difficulties over the years, Ginsburg tells the story of another woman that could have changed history for women in politics as early as 1949.

Ginsburg using Feminine Style

Justice Ginsburg relies heavily on this tactic of quoting others to add to her arguments. She also follows many of the other characteristics of the feminine style of rhetoric. For example, Ginsburg often addresses her audience as peers, just as Grimké commonly did in her arguments. This tactic allows the audience to feel better connected to their speaker. The hierarchy that is often seen between audience is speaker is dissolved, and everyone is on the same level. This allows the audience to feel more like they are part of a conversation than simply being spoken to.

In the concluding paragraph of Justice Ginsburg’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby dissent, she unites her audience by reminding them that they are all connected. She states, “Our cosmopolitan nation is made up of almost every conceivable religious preference. In passing RFRA, Congress did not alter a tradition in which a person’s right to free exercise of her religion must be kept in harmony with her fellow citizens, and with the common good” (Ginsburg 312). Closing her argument with a phrase that begins with “Our cosmopolitan nation” is a powerful rhetorical move that brings the audience together; they are no longer a group of different people with different opinions and histories. Instead, they are all members of this nation that they share.

Another way Ginsburg follows this feminine style and mimics the rhetoric of Angelina Grimké is through her consistent use of rhetorical questions. These questions do not require a vocalized answer from the audience, but they still invite audience participation. These questions ask audience members to consider their own experience in relation to the argument being made.

In her dissent of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, she asks, “What of the employer whose religious faith teaches that it is sinful to employ a single woman without her father’s consent, or a married woman without her husband’s consent? Can those employers opt out of Title VII’s ban on gender discrimination in employment? These examples, by the way, are not hypothetical” (Ginsburg 309). These questions are particularly effective because they allow the audience to come to their own conclusions without thinking they are simply being told they are wrong; it forces them to reconsider or look at other possibilities.

Women supporting Justice Ginsburg’s Dissent after the Hobby Lobby case

The Women’s Rights Movement has existed in American society for over a century now, but we have yet to achieve absolute equality. Feminist style and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s clever use of rhetoric and performance have allowed us to get to where we are today. Unfortunately, despite all of the victories, women are still being denied crucial rights such as access to life-saving health care. In her dissenting opinion to the case, Gonzales v. Carhart, Ginsburg argues that the Court’s decision to criminalize any doctor or medical professional who performs certain methods abortion is in direct contradiction to the previous ruling of Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion because of privacy issues.

We have not achieved the equality and the sole control over our bodies yet, but with the help of Ginsburg’s careful and persuasive rhetorical style, the Women’s Rights Movement can continue to make strides towards equality.

Poster from a recent Women’s Rights March


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