Lessons from RBG

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her chambers in at the Supreme Court on July 31, 2014.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought tirelessly for equality, especially for women. So many things today that seem natural and obvious weren’t always – she and others had to win our right to be seen as masters of our own destiny, instead of mere accessories to our husbands’ life journey.

I’ve been thinking about RBG for sometime and a few valuable lessons we could take from her work.

The first is this: there IS no precedent.

In law, the point of reference is often: What did we do before?

But what if you’re breaking new ground? What if the rules of the past can no longer be successfully or fairly applied?

Ginsburg wasn’t afraid to demand a new precedent.

And I say this is incredibly relevant to our trade, if we are to survive: There is no meaningful precedent for now.

When we ask, “How was it done before?” we ask the most useless question of all – because we’ve never before been in this position.

The ways we used to train, work, hire . . . They are designs of a bygone Industrial Age.

And while we no longer have the same assets, new opportunities abound – if we’re looking forward.

The question isn’t “how was it done before?” but “how could it be done now?”

Do we have it in us to look with fresh eyes and create a NEW precedent for our profession? One that is better designed to thrive in the modern world? Or will we follow our own precedents down to the absolute ground?

The second lesson is for my women in upholstery.

Ginsburg broke so many glass ceilings. In doing so, she almost certainly depended on the support, approval and advocacy of some of her male colleagues and mentors.

This is not unusual for women in most fields – there will likely be high level doors that we need someone in upper management to help open.

But what about upholstery?

There’s no question that our trade has historically sought to minimize women. You need only go back the the 70’s to find actual policy that prohibited women from enrolling in certain degree programs. And anecdotally, you can still find plenty of evidence that old gender roles are alive and well – Men tie springs, women sew cushions.

But I would suggest to you that the industry gatekeepers of old have thoroughly abandoned their posts. Opportunities of yesterday have been left to decay unattended.

There are almost no closed doors worth banging on.

So we needn’t bother.

I think we are VERY socialized as women (feel free to disagree – do men feel this? Is it just me specifically) I think we are very socialized to wait for permission. For someone to tell us, “Yes, you are now qualified to work/lead/brag.”

But what if there is no one?

Or more specifically, what if there is no one we HAVE to go through?

I’ve had male colleagues express spiteful disapproval of my skills.

I’ve also had male colleagues be incredibly supportive and encouraging.

Either way, the fact is, their opinion generally neither aided nor impeded me.

Because earning their approval (or not) wasn’t attached to any meaningful opportunity.

This took me longer to figure out than it should have, which is why I want to share it with you: You aren’t required to go through someone you could just as easily go around.

Are they ACTUALLY holding the keys to professional advancement? Or just IMPLYING that they do?

Now that might make some people upset, because they believe you are morally obligated to value their approval and input.

And I’m not saying you should blow everyone off – professional friendships are gold. I believe absolutely in kindness and respect.

But what I am saying is this:

Don’t stand around on the sidelines, waiting for someone to open the door to your big opportunity.

The door isn’t there. The opportunity isn’t there. The doorman isn’t there.

The future is whatever you’re prepared to make it.

If you want to be amazing, go out and be amazing.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be proud.

Cynthia Bleskachek stands in a shirt featuring Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the quote, "Women belong in all places where decisions are being made."

(Author’s note: Thought this post wasn’t published until November 11th, it was written on September 18th, shortly after hearing of RBG’s passing. )

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