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Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Power of the Female Brain

The death last month of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court’s feminist icon, continues to bring her historic life and legacy to America’s collective consciousness.

“By the time [Ginsburg] was in her 80s,” writes NPR’s Nina Totenberg, “she had become something of a rock star to women of all ages. She was the subject of a hit documentary, a biopic, an operetta, merchandise galore featuring her ‘Notorious RBG’ moniker, a Time magazine cover and regular Saturday Night Live sketches.”

Moreover, Ginsburg has as much to teach the rest of us — women and men — in death as she did in life. But it’s up to us to look and learn. 

Ginsburg’s passing is currently sparking a political and cultural firestorm over Senate Republicans’ race to confirm Donald Trump’s rushed nominee, the stalwart conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett, to replace the liberal Ginsburg in record time. This is despite at least 12 polls showing that the majority of Americans, including many Republicans, want to wait until after the Nov. 3 presidential election to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. Not to mention that an already contentious, head-spinning election season is further intensifying due to Trump, alongside a rapidly growing list of aides and allies, just falling prey to COVID-19.

Now, amid a deadly pandemic, epic levels of joblessness and economic despair, and a profound racial reckoning, Americans stand to face even more angst and uncertainty. And with that comes a serious risk: the human brain reacts faster and more emotionally than it can think rationally. My point? Raw emotion inherently leads in the direction of chaos and division — a notion anathema to how Ginsburg lived and worked well into her ninth decade.

“A force for consensus-building”

In 1993, when President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg for the Supreme Court, where ultimately she’d become only the second female Justice, he said this at the announcement ceremony: “I believe that in the years ahead she will be able to be a force for consensus-building on the Supreme Court, just as she has been on the Court of Appeals.”

Clinton proved to be right: Over Ginsburg’s 27 years on the Court, she steadfastly enabled her fellow Justices, some with very different views of the law, to think clearly together and change laws in her continued pursuit of gender and race equality. Ginsburg, in fact, surprised countless Court watchers with her comfort in the company of the more conservative Justices, let alone her close, enduring friendship with the Court’s most staunch conservative, the now-late Justice Antonin Scalia. “We were best buddies,” wrote Ginsburg upon Scalia’s death in 2016.

It’s a lesson for the ages. And it also speaks to the chemistry — and the power therein — of the female brain.

“I ask no favor for my sex”

Modern neuroscience tells us that the capacity to hold multiple and even contradictory views in mind, yet remain empathically tuned in to the people holding them, is a quality more strongly supported by the female brain. This is because connectivity in the female brain is more active between the two cerebral hemispheres. Conversely, in the male brain, the fiber pathways merely run back and forth within each hemisphere. Now, don’t get me wrong. Each gender’s way of interacting with others has its own particular advantages. The neural patterning in the female brain, however, allows for a considerably more iterative, emergent process — something that Ginsburg brilliantly demonstrated throughout her legal and judicial career.

Combine this neural patterning with the higher levels of oxytocin (known as the “bonding hormone”) in the female brain, and you’re looking at women like Ginsburg generally having a greater capacity for collegiality and collaboration over a more adversarial approach, as often evidenced by men.

Recent research at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence shows that the collective intelligence of a group rises when there are women involved in that group. And in fact, the more women, the better.

In their New York Times article, “Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others,” the MIT researchers write of their study: “Teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. Indeed, it appeared that it was not ‘diversity’ (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered to a team’s intelligence, but simply having more women. This last effect, however, was partly explained by the fact that women, on average, were better at ‘mindreading’ than men.” And by “mindreading,” the researchers are referring to the skill of social perception, a kind of social intelligence.

First in 1973, and thereafter throughout her career, Ginsburg famously quoted Sarah Moore Grimké, a 19th century American abolitionist and women’s right activist, as saying: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

To be sure, Ginsburg’s beloved husband of 56 years, the renowned tax lawyer Martin (aka “Marty”) Ginsburg, who died in 2010, unequivocally shared that sentiment.

A “history-making marriage of equals”

At 17, Ruth met Marty at Cornell University, where both later graduated and went on to Harvard Law School. “What made Marty so overwhelmingly attractive to me was that he cared that I had a brain,” she said in an interview.

The Ginsburgs, who married in 1954 and had two children, Jane and James, while also building their legal careers, had, as Time magazine describes, a “history-shaping marriage of equals.” Consider, for example, that when Ruth graduated from law school in 1959, only one in three married women worked outside the home, and furthermore, only 2 percent of lawyers were women. Also, it was Marty who, in the background, tirelessly lobbied for Bill Clinton to consider Ruth — who notably was not first on Clinton’s list — for the Supreme Court.

Marty wrote one final letter to Ruth shortly before he died. “You,” he said, “are the only person I have loved in my life.” The day after Marty’s death, Ruth was on the bench, reading an important opinion she had written for the Court. “Marty would have wanted it,” she said. Over the next 10 years, Ruth would persevere without him, maintaining a remarkably active life on and off the Court.

Ruth and Marty Ginsburg’s joint legacy, as different yet equal partners, is something to behold. “I have had the great good fortune to share life with a partner truly extraordinary for his generation, a man who believed at age 18 when we met, and who believes today, that a woman’s work, whether at home or on the job, is as important as a man’s,” Ruth said in her 1993 Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

Three years later, Ruth would write the majority opinion in the United States v. Virginia, a 1996 landmark discrimination case involving the state-supported Virginia Military Institute. “Inherent differences between men and women, we have come to appreciate, remain cause for celebration, but not for denigration of the members of either sex or for artificial constraints on an individual’s opportunity,” she said.

“A very bright star”

Ginsburg’s death will have profound consequences for the Supreme Court and America writ large. And while fierce polarization and bare-knuckle politics may dominate the country today, all is not lost.

We get what we focus on. That is the way that the human brain works. The trailblazing Ginsburg was a shining example of calm, openness, social perception, and the capacity for diversity of thought, intelligent debate and partnering, and strategic consensus — all hallmarks of the power of the female brain and, of course, Ginsburg’s decorous yet dogged power and virtuosity overall.

“I do think that I was born under a very bright star,” said Ginsburg in an NPR interview. So, in the days ahead, may the rest of us look and learn — and follow that star. In carrying Ginsburg’s legacy forward, we’ll all be supremely better for it.

Kate Lanz

Kate Lanz

Kate Lanz is founder and CEO of Mindbridge, a UK-based global coaching company specializing in the relationship between modern neuroscience and releasing latent brain potential at work. She is co-author of All the Brains in the Business: The Engendered Brain in the 21st Century Organisation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

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