Long before I became a mother, I strongly identified with the gender struggles of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Over the years, her pioneering legal mind and advocacy for equal treatment of gender has been a tremendous inspiration to me throughout my own life, and most especially as an autism mom. As the mother of an autistic daughter (rather than the more frequently diagnosed boys), I found myself in pioneer country. Our family’s autism journey began before the internet, ABA, Autism Speaks, and the burgeoning neurodiversity movement which I am proud to support today.
Although considerably younger and less accomplished than RBG, I suffered similar humiliations in an education system mainly geared toward men. When I was applying to elite colleges in the mid-70s from Trinity’s first ever graduating class with girls, the headmaster (also my college advisor), told me I was “an overachiever.” He said I was ” too pretty” (!!!) to worry about going to a top college. At the time I was totally crushed and bewildered, but I applied and was accepted early decision to Vassar College anyway. Instead of congratulating me, the headmaster said: “Okay, now that you’re in, let’s see if you can stay in.” Not exactly an ego builder, but certainly a challenge.
At Vassar, I double majored in English and Psychology and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Trinity’s headmaster had already retired, but my parents took the opportunity to write to him in Florida and brag about my graduation with honors.
Despite my stellar academic credentials and borderline typing speed, my first job out of college was as a secretary at Redbook. I couldn’t find anything better and would never been hired but for my ability to respond to “Letters to the Editor.” A few years later at jobs in financial public relations, I finally achieved the title of “account executive.” As a woman, I was expected to work longer hours for less pay than my male counterparts and be grateful for the opportunity. To make matters worse, the female secretaries felt envious and resentful toward me for being an executive, and they systematically prioritized men’s work requests over mine. I was NOT a happy camper, as my daughter Samantha likes to say.
Unlike RBG, I did not go to graduate school or persevere through these inequities. After I married and had twins, I retired from the work force to raise my autistic daughter and her brother. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I began to follow in RBG’s footsteps by fighting first for my daughter’s educational rights and later for her inclusion in a mostly-unkind and intellectually narrow-minded world.
As insulting as my high school headmaster’s remarks had been, Samantha endured far worse at her special education schools and camps.
“Academics are not important for Samantha,” a headmistress informed me when I expressed concern that my daughter and her 11 year-old classmates were doing nothing except rote memorization. The headmistress waved her hand dismissively.
Then there was the head of a sleep-away camp for children with “high functioning autism” who said my 9 year old daughter “was not appropriate for her camp. During the camp interview, Samantha had rested her muddy boots on the woman’s white sofa during her interview and refused to remove them. My husband and I had been mortified, although we couldn’t help wondering why anyone working with autistic children would furnish her office all in white. (???)
“Don’t worry,” said the camp owner said in a sympathetic tone. “In a few more years, you can send her away to a residential setting.”
That never happened.
Our family never gave up on Samantha. Much as Ruth Bader Ginsburg never relented in her battles for gender equality, I will never stop fighting for the rights of the neurodiverse. In spite of some experts’ dire predictions, my autistic daughter ended up graduating with honors from Pace University. In addition, she co-starred in an award-winning movie and and spoke at the United Nations on World Autism Awareness Day. At 29, she has accomplished more than most young neurotypical women.
My daughter and I have fought long and hard for a neurodiverse world in which people with disabilities are respected, included and treated as equals in the human race. We are still in pioneer territory, much as Ruth Bader Ginsburg found herself at Harvard when she was the first of nine women at Harvard, and again during her lengthy legal employment and her long tenure on the Supreme Court
In 1999, when my daughter was nine, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on the Olmstead v L.C. case affirming that people with disabilities have a qualified right to receive state funded supports and services in the community rather than in institutions. Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion: “First, institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life. Second, confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement and cultural enrichment.”
“Olmstead” is now considered the most important civil rights decision for people with disabilities in our country’s history.
Thank you RBG for providing inspiration and strength to generations of women—black, white, brown and the neurodiverse—who are still enduring many injustices of the patriarchy. RBG served as a role model to women everywhere who dream of equality and making a difference in the world. Rest in peace, RBG. Be assured that no matter who replaces you on the Supreme Court (or when!), little girls growing up today are armed and ready to follow in your footsteps.