Why lack of representation in your government and news media matters


Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Nina Totenberg’s report on All Things Considered last night on the “strip search” case heard yesterday at the Supreme Court is the only news report I can find that notes that lone woman Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was on her own at one point in the hearing:

At this point in the argument, a gender difference reared its head.  Justice Breyer suggested that it’s no big deal when kids strip–after all, they do it for gym class all the time.  Savana Redding didn’t reveal her body beyond her underclothes, said Breyer.  Justice Ginsburg, the court’s only female justice, bristled.  Her eyes flashing with anger, she noted that there’s no dispute that Savannah was required to shake out her bra and the crotch of her panties.  Ginsburg seemed to all but shout, “boys may like to preen in the locker room but girls, particularly teenaged girls, do not.”

The Washington Post report by Robert Barnes says that “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed at times on the edge of exasperation with her all-male colleagues,” but provided no further detail.  McClatchy’s article by Michael Doyle says that “Ginsburg conveyed dismay at the search’s intrusiveness,” but doesn’t report further on her views.  The New York Times report, written by Adam Liptak, omits mentioning that Ginsburg was even in the room yesterday, and instead emphasizes this comment by “even the liberal” Justice Stephen Breyer:

Justice Breyer elaborated on what children put in their underwear. “In my experience when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day,” he said. “We changed for gym, O.K.? And in my experience, too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear.” 

Ha-ha!  Strip-searching middle-school girls is funny!  (Unless you’re a middle-school girl, but if you are, you don’t vote so we don’t care about violating your Fourth Amendment rights.)  Ginsburg’s point of view won’t be shared by all women–but the point is that when gender matters in terms of a justice’s analysis of a case, having only one woman on the Supreme Court and only a few women in the news media reporting on the court means that women’s interests are hardly represented or reported at all.

I haven’t found any newspaper reports yet that share Totenberg’s explicitly gendered viewpoint.  You can play too–report your findings below!

0 thoughts on “Why lack of representation in your government and news media matters

  1. I heard the NPR report as well, and was baffled by how lightly all the justices (except, obviously, Justice Ginsburg) were taking the issue. Looks like oversexualizing children has its effects on older generations as well.


  2. You can see the actual transcript at:

    Click to access 08-479.pdf

    Ginsburg, as much of the press reporting has suggested, did seem much more skeptical of the school’s argument than her colleagues. It’s worth pointing out, however, that nothing she actually *says* (and you can skim her comments in less than 5 minutes) warrants Totenberg’s highly gendered reading, which depends largely on putting words in the justice’s mouth. Totenberg’s reporting is unclear here, as it might suggest the she actually said (but not shouted) the comments about boys “preening” in the locker room. (Reading the text you provide, it is impossible to determine whether the “seemed” in the “seemed to all but shout” applies to the shouting or the actual words.) In fact, she said nothing of the sort. What she did do was dispute Breyer’s comparison between undressing in a locker room and being stripped search (which is really what happened), but her point (while perhaps informed by her gender) could apply equally well to boys and girls.


  3. Erica, yes–it’s not just a gender issue here, but also one of respect for children and for their privacy and bodily integrity. But sadly, our society finds it very easy to make impositions on children in schools that we would never tolerate for adults.

    I can’t believe that of the 8 men on the court, not one of them has a daughter? Not one of them has any insight whatsoever into what 12 year-old girls are like? That suggests a real lack of empathy that I find deeply troubling. (I know for a fact that one of them has at least one daughter, since I went to college with her. The question about daughters was rhetorical.)


  4. lonewolf: since Totenberg sits in on oral arguments, I’ll take her word over yours as to Ginsburg’s tone and volume. Transcripts alone can’t convey the nuances of these exchanges.

    This is a feminist blog. Perhaps you’d be more comfortable in another forum. But here, we think it’s important that women be equally represented everywhere.


  5. I made some previous comments that are currently stuck in moderation (I linked to the transcript of the hearing). The more I look at the transcript, however, the more I think that Nina Totenberg is misrepresenting what went on. Not only does she put words to Ginsberg’s mouth (which do not capture the tone or content of what was actually said), but she distorts Breyer’s words. Here’s what he said:

    JUSTICE BREYER: I’m trying to work out why
    is this a major thing to say strip down to your
    underclothes, which children do when they change for
    gym, they do fairly frequently, not to — you know, and
    there are only two women there. Is — how bad is this,
    underclothes? That’s what I’m trying to get at. I’m
    asking because I don’t know.

    Note the last words of Breyer’s comments: “I don’t know.” This is what judges do in Supreme Court hearings: they work through scenarios, make tendentious analogies, and see where they take them. Since the crux of the question is whether the search was intrusive (I tend to think that it was), you can hardly blame him for raising the question of how it compares with taking of one’s clothes for gym.

    The exchange with Ginsberg (in which she addresses the school’s attorney, not her colleague) turns out to hinge on a dispute between the parties over what exactly happened during the strip search. Breyer and Ginsberg had differing understandings of what, exactly, was in dispute.

    Based on my reading of the transcript (but of course I wasn’t there), it is Totenberg, and not the rest of the press corps, who is misrepresenting the record.

    P.S. As for Breyer’s comments regarding what children put in their underwear, the NYT notes that Breyer grew flustered, aware that he had mispoken. Do I need to point out that the (apparently unintentional) humor of this comment has nothing to do with girls?


  6. This is a feminist blog. Perhaps you’d be more comfortable in another forum. But here, we think it’s important that women be equally represented everywhere.

    If I had seen your comment, I wouldn’t have bothered to post a followup. I will let your readers judge whether I ever said or implied that women aren’t entitled to representation everywhere.


  7. I’m perplexed as to why the justices were even trying to make a comparison between voluntarily undressing for gym in a room full of others doing the same and being forced to undress alone under the scrutiny of an adult. This is not the same thing, whether you are a boy or a girl. Not to mention which in many schools, they don’t even have gym anymore because it has been cut from middle school budgets, so how familiar would this even be?


  8. ej–great point. They might have just as well argued, “well, most people get undressed at least once a day to get in the shower, so what’s the big deal?”

    Duh. This is about the power of the state to coerce children to undress at school.


  9. “I can’t believe that of the 8 men on the court, not one of them has a daughter? Not one of them has any insight whatsoever into what 12 year-old girls are like?”

    I am reminded of Larry Summers’s comment that women with children aren’t willing to put in the 80-hour workweeks required to become successful scientists. If 80-hour weeks are what men assume they must put in to become, say, Supreme Court justices–well, they may have daughters, but they probably haven’t actually met them.


  10. Even Souter freaked out on this one. The coverage where I read it (in Liptak’s account) did make it seem as if the culture of towel-snapping and other locker room camaraderie dominated the imaginations of the Brethren. Deference to the interests of the government is not, it seems to me, among the principal reasons why we have a Supreme Court, but I came up back during the Warren Interregnum. If I had a vote, anything that came forward with an amicus brief from a school board anywhere, or an association of school board associations anywhere, would get REEE-jected, the way they do it in that “Just For Men” infomercial.


  11. p.s. To Historiann’s comment about journalists: It’s probably considerably too early to determine the major contours of what the transition from Linda Greenhouse to Liptak will be on that beat. They groomed Liptak for a pretty long time as her back-up, but it will be interesting to watch, for any J-School junkies out there.


  12. FWIW, Dahlia Lithwick interpreted this exchange in much the same way Totenberg did. Lithwick suggested that this case will go down in the “Definitive Supreme Court Concordance of Not Getting It,” next to Lilly Ledbetter:


    I must confess that this case truly, truly mystifies me. I simply cannot fathom the fact that the school did this. One really telling detail for me here is the fact that the school didn’t call the young woman’s parents. Now, I know that a great deal of policy that comes under the rubric “parental rights” can be pretty reactionary. But in this case–is there any conceivable reason why someone would not have gone through the step of calling mom before the strip search? Was it because they suspected that mom would have said WTF are you doing?

    (For the record, Savana Redding suggested that this would would have been her preferred solution–she’d rather have dealt with a parent than a strip search.)

    There’s just no way that anything in this case was even remotely funny, and anyone making jokes about it in public is classless.


  13. Thanks for the Lithwick link, John S. I should have checked Slate too–without Linda Greenhouse at the NYT (as Indyanna notes), I didn’t know where else to find a woman reporting on the SC besides Totenberg! (I like Lithwick’s work.)

    I think most kids would rather deal with their parents than the school if all they’re holding is Ibuprofen.

    Mamie–you’re exactly right that yesterday in the SC (and this morning in the articles written by people with male names) is like the Summers comment. Lots of unexamined privilege–or, should I say instead, that there’s a willful blindness to other people’s experiences of the world and of a shocking lack of empathy for all children, not just girl children (but especially them.)


  14. Although–I will say that I kind of hate all of the emphasis on the “honor student” aspect in this case. Even non-honor students should have their Fourth Amendment rights honored, too. (I get the PR value of the “honor student” angle for the ACLU, although I think the more germane aspect of Redding’s school record is that she had a clean record with no history of disciplinary infractions or drug problems.)


  15. I’m going to make completely frivolous comment to express my deep and abiding esteem for Justice Ginsburg. I recently saw an interview with Sandra Day O’Connor in which she basically said that it was kind of lonely being the only woman on the court until Ginsburg was appointed.

    I think we need to find Ginsburg some companionship on the court. Besides Scalia.


  16. In one of those odd connections, I actually knew an honor student in high school who was highly reliant on ibuprofen — she’d take four Advil for a paper cut, which is the equivalent of one prescription-strength ibuprofen tablet.

    And yeah, me and my gang of honor student misfits all carried ibuprofen in our backpacks, and took it during the school day sometimes. When you’re going through menarche and vicious teenage menstrual cramps and your school nurse can’t give you anything but a place to lie down and cry, what’s a girl to do?


  17. thanks for documenting this situation. I’ve been keeping track of the other issue (“found dead” vs. “father killed” stories) for intro and I think this will prove a good second example that expands the conversation into what happens after the initial bias in viewing the crime moves into the justice system itself.


  18. Someone telephoned me this afternoon to tell me that NPR is doing a discussion of familicide on “Here and Now.” I’m not familiar with that program since we don’t get it out here, but some of you might be able to catch it, if you’re so inclined. I’ll see if there’s a podcast or something I can listen to later tomorrow, if I get a chance.

    But, in good news: Allen Andrade was found guilty of first-degree murder for the murder of Angie Zapata this morning here in Potterville. (I’ll post more on this tomorrow.) First degree murder means a mandatory life sentence for Andrade–he was sentenced just a few hours ago. Not bad for a little ol’ cow town.


  19. Pingback: Strip Searches in Schools: Not Just for Girls! « Kittywampus

  20. I don’t buy the in loco parentis argument one bit in this case: I think a twelve year-old (male or female) would have a pretty strong case even if their actual parents made them strip down to their underwear in front of “parents” of both sexes.

    That may not be the most coherent argument, but it’s the best I can muster, as this whole incident and the justices’ minimization of the harm done has reduced me to typing with my head in my hands.


  21. NB: My previous comment should not be taken to deny the gendered aspects of this case or the way it was argued. Anyone who’s been within a 10-mile radius of a 11-15 year-old girl knows that privacy (especially with regard to their bodies) is a seriously sensitive issue. Anyone who’s been an 11-15 year-old girl has probably been the recipient of unwanted attention from men her father’s age.

    And I wonder if there’s something even more insidious at work here. If you’ll bear with me for a moment: in the one picture I saw of the now young woman in question, I noted that she was overweight. As a former obese twelve year-old myself, I can’t help but wonder whether this girl was experiencing yet another incident where overweight bodies are assumed to be less deserving of respect than others, and the girls inhabiting those bodies less fully human.


  22. Notorious Ph.D. – I hadn’t seen any pictures of Ms. Redding, so thanks for bringing that up. It’s completely believable.
    It’s interesting, too, that the Salon article is the only place I’ve seen that mentions that Ms. Redding dropped out of school at some point after this incident, especially since as has been noted, there has been a lot of emphasis on her being an honor student. It’s all about the titillation of a kid being strip-searched, with little mention of the damage it did to her.


  23. Well, after seeing this, I had to go find out what happened. I read the McClatchy link.

    The school was conducting strip searches, violating the student, for what amounts to some aspirin? Are you bloody kidding me? Have we all gone mad?


  24. Acutally, I think ibuprofen is safer than asprin, and it’s much much safer than Tylenol (acetominaphin). You have to eat a gallon of pills almost to OD on the stuff. I think schools in the U.S. went overboard with their “no tolerance” policies after the Columbine massacre in 1999–maybe this case represents the crest of a wave rolling back such absolutist, draconian policies.

    Or, like 8/9 of the Supreme Court, we might just point and laugh at 13 year-olds who had to strip and shake out their bras upon command at school.


  25. ej, I had the same reaction to the comparison of stripping for gym and being strip-searched. *These* are the people who were appointed for LIFE because of their allegedly superior sense of logic?!


  26. Reader Susan sent me a link to Maira Kalman’s latest illustrated essay in the New York Times, “May it Please the Court.” Check it out–it’s really an interesting meditation on women and women’s history and what little representation women have in the corridors of power.

    And of course, the ninth comment (out of 190 so far) is a rant by a man complaining about how “feminist rage” has perverted the justice system against “devoted fathers and their children.”

    Sigh. As I’ve learned over the past 16 months of this blog’s existence, antifeminists just can’t let a feminist space be a feminist space.


  27. Pingback: Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Blogs discussing the “strip search” case

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.