Tradition and Transgression
Updated: Mar 12, 2021
Honoring the heroic and visionary Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
By Dominy Gallo
I face the blank page this evening, not with the usual feeling of joyful, mildly overconfident abandon I have grown so accustomed to experiencing when I begin writing. Instead, I find my fingers stalled under the weight of both the formidable task of honoring such a life and my heart heavy with grief. The pundits chatter about a vacancy on the Supreme Court, but the loss of the woman who once filled it has left a far wider hole in the moral fabric of the universe.
What can I write to honor the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that is worthy of her legacy? Little remains unsaid. Just a cluster of words, I tell myself, a tight and pointed phrase, an epithet. Then the rest will come. As I have so often in times of doubt, I turn to the Justice herself for inspiration and find the answer in her own words: a “heroic and visionary woman.” The phrase is in the heading of an essay Justice Ginsburg wrote for the American Jewish World Service’s Chag v’Chesed series, “The Heroic and Visionary Women of Passover.”
“In Exodus,” she writes, “God has many partners, first among them, five brave women.” Yocheved, Shifra, Puah, Miriam, and Batya shared the courage to “transgress.” In their own ways, each of them defied male authority, fathers and pharaohs, “to make their vision a reality.” Reading about these women, I can think only of Justice Ginsburg herself, whose life and legacy of dissent and disruption so profoundly “carry forward the tradition” of transgression “those intrepid women launched.”
I think about this word, “tradition.” At Columbia, we refer to ourselves as members of a “traditional institution.” When we take Lit Hum and CC, we do more than learn the legend we call the “Western Tradition;” we extend its life. Turning the pages of Plato and Homer, I wonder if preserving this tradition so steeped in the blood of colonization and capitalism, so riddled with racism and misogyny, is itself an act of violence. I am aware of the danger in passively and uncritically accepting this narrative of “Westernness” with all its underlying assumptions, hierarchies, and exclusions. Like many of us, I feel the immense responsibility that accompanies interpretation of and engagement with the canon whose shape and trajectory lie, in large part, within our grasp.
I am not prepared to answer the question of what to preserve and what to discard, what to center and what to criticize. I owe so much of my conscience to Columbia, and yet I find so much to challenge in the tradition upon which it was built. How, I must ask the Justice, can I deconstruct and defy what is so central to the very institution to which I owe so much of myself? How do I carry on the tradition of transgression, defiance, and disruption of those five Biblical women, circumscribed by the limits of our flawed canon?
In her essay, Justice Ginsburg accepts the Biblical tradition in all its wholeness but chooses to imagine and immortalize those exceptional women who have been historically ignored. In her life, she did not tolerate the sexism inherent in our legal system and chose to reshape it herself. Following in her footsteps, I have set out in search of the “heroic and visionary women” who should be remembered and enlivened in the canon that we build.
I find Circe, whose desire transforms soldiers into animals, and without whom Odysseus is doomed. The powerful Dido, whose dying curse, magnificently wrought, sends Rome and Carthage into centuries of rivalry. Camilla, the warrior maiden, killed gloriously in battle against the hero Aeneas. Arachne, whose fateful tapestry unearths centuries of sexual cruelty against women by the gods, punished for challenging divine power. Clytemnestra, killed for seeking vengeance against the man who murdered her daughter. Antigone, punished for openly defying the king who dishonors her brother. Cassandra, condemned to speak truth no one believes, like so many women whose suffering the world denies today.
But this is not enough. Defiant though these women are, their stories are told and limited, their punishments doled out, by men. Their bodies are inscribed with male violence. They are defined in relation to men: heroes, husbands, brothers, kings. With the exception of the enchantress Circe, transgression costs each and every one of these women her life, her body, or her sanity.
It should not be so difficult to locate, in four thousand years of “Westernness,” women out of whose legacy such strong modern heroes as Ruth Bader Ginsburg might have emerged. To locate full and independent female characters unleashed from the male gaze. To uncover a woman’s narrative voice in more than fragments.
As the study of tradition so often shows, absence speaks as loudly as presence. Every choice to canonize signals a complementary choice not to, as those of us agitating for a globalized Core know too well. I ask myself why women prove so absent in the ancient body of literature we deem so central to our intellectual development. How many would-be women writers and philosophers never even had the chance to learn? How many dared, against all odds, and suffered for it? Hypatia of Alexandria, the earliest known woman mathematician, whose geometry and number theory only reach us in fragments in the writings of others, was flayed by a Christian mob. How many words written by women might have survived, if only those in power had cared enough to preserve them? How many survive, but remain ignored? Searches for lists of ancient women to rework into the Core yield bleak, back-alley results. No “reputable” sources have cared to compile such a list. The materials simply are not there.
We face, then, two gaping holes. One, we cannot fill—the one Justice Ginsburg left through her passing. The other—the forgotten women in the tradition of literature—I challenge Columbia to reimagine. If I am to co-create this canon, let it preserve the tradition of those invisible women who dissented against the patriarchal authority that wrestled their stories from them. Let us refigure its content to celebrate the spirit of transgression rather than bludgeon its proponents into silence.
In many Jewish households, during the Passover Seder, the door is left open, a seat unfilled, a glass of wine poured for Elijah. The ceremony celebrates freedom and redemption, past and future. It commemorates historical deliverance from bondage and promises the coming of a new light. As we at Columbia figure and refigure the future of our canon, let us leave the door open, a seat empty, and a glass poured in honor of those “heroic and visionary women,” unseen in the shadows of history, upon whose shoulders we stand. May Justice Ginsburg’s memory, and the memory of all in whose footsteps she walked, be a blessing.
Illustration by Kat Chen