The Sept. 18, 2020, death of U.S. Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had been a staunch advocate for gender equality and women’s rights, prompted an outpouring of tributes in the online world. Among the many memes commemorating Ginsburg’s life and work that were shared via social media was one which attributed to her the poignant statement, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks”:
This quotation was strongly associated with Ginsburg due in large part to the 2018 release of the documentary “RBG,” which opened with her speaking these words, as shown in the following trailer for the film:
What eluded many viewers of the film (especially those who didn’t make it all the way through to the end), however, was that when Ginsburg uttered those two sentences for the camera, she was reciting someone else’s words rather than making an original statement.
“I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks” was something Ginsburg had said during her first oral arguments before the Supreme Court in the 1973 case of Frontiero v. Richardson (which contested a U.S. Air Force policy of providing benefits to dependent spouses differently based on sex). But when Ginsburg did so, she was quoting the words of Sarah Moore Grimké, a 19th century abolitionist and women’s rights activist:
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1792, [Grimké] 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.
In a letter to her sister Angelina Emily Grimké, penned on July 17, 1837, Sarah wrote the following, which Ginsburg quoted in slightly shortened form:
Even admitting that Eve was the greater sinner, it seems to me man might be satisfied with the dominion he has claimed and exercised for nearly six thousand years, and that more true nobility would be manifested by endeavoring to raise the fallen and invigorate the weak, than by keeping women in subjection. But 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 on that ground which God designed us to occupy.
The reference to “six thousand years” in Grimké’s missive refers to the calculation made in 1650 by James Ussher, the archbishop of Armagh, that the world was created in 4004 B.C.