ACLU admits it screwed up by changing RBG’s words; Michelle Goldberg explains why the changes were misleading

September 28, 2021 • 9:15 am

A week ago I called attention to a tweet by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that quoted but redacted some words by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG). The ACLU made six changes in just one short quote, including an omission. Here’s what they tweeted:

Here are her real words, which according to Michelle Goldberg’s NYT article below, were uttered during RBG’s 1993 Senate confirmation hearings. As usual, RBG didn’t pull any punches!

“The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When the government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a full adult human responsible for her own choices.”

― Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I added this in my post:

There are six changes, five in brackets, getting rid of “woman” and “her” (substituting “persons” and “people” for “woman” and “they” or “their” for three “hers”).  The missing part of the quote, which is “It is a decision she must make for herself”, could have been altered to “It is a decision they must make for themselves,” but that would add two more sets of brackets and make the whole quotation look really weird.

The explanation is simple and obvious; they are removing RBG’s reference to women having babies since the ACLU, whose mission now includes a substantial amount of transgender activism, is onboard with the idea that transmen, who are now given the pronouns “he” and “men”, can have babies. And indeed, transmen have given birth.

The ACLU is heavily into transsexual rights, which is fine since those are civil rights, but they’ve gone overboard on this before (one of their staff attorneys called for the censorship of Abigail Shrier’s book, and did so again by drastically changing RBG’s words. They’re also slowly but surely removing themselves from defending the First Amendment.  Here’s the tweet (now removed) by their chief attorney for transsexual issues:

I’m pretty fed up with the ACLU, though they’re still doing some good work. But back to the RBG redaction. In her op-ed, Michelle Goldberg (click on screenshot below) puts her finger on two reasons why the alteration of RBG’s words was misleading and invidious.

While Goldberg bends over backwards to approve of gender-inclusive language, she criticizes the ACLU’s changes for two reasons. The first one I raised in my post; the second is one that is more likely to be spotted and raised by a woman.

This was a mistake for two reasons, one that’s easy to talk about, and one that’s hard.

The easy one is this: It’s somewhat Orwellian to rewrite historical utterances to conform to modern sensitivities. No one that I’m aware of used gender-neutral language to talk about pregnancy and abortion in 1993; it wasn’t until 2008 that Thomas Beatie became famous as what headlines sometimes called the “First Pregnant Man.” There’s a difference between substituting the phrase “pregnant people” for “pregnant women” now, and pretending that we have always spoken of “pregnant people.”

What’s more difficult to discuss is how making Ginsburg’s words gender-neutral alters their meaning. That requires coming to terms with a contentious shift in how progressives think and talk about sex and reproduction. Changing Ginsburg’s words treats what was once a core feminist insight — that women are oppressed on the basis of their reproductive capacity — as an embarrassing anachronism. The question then becomes: Is it?

Goldberg clearly thinks “no, it’s not an embarrassing anachronism”, but for a reason that some trans-activists might oppose. (Bolding below is mine.)

A gender-inclusive understanding of reproduction is in keeping with the goal of a society free of sex hierarchies. It is one thing to insist that women shouldn’t be relegated to second-class status because they can bear children. It’s perhaps more radical to define sex and gender so that childbearing is no longer women’s exclusive domain.

Yet I think there’s a difference between acknowledging that there are men who have children or need abortions — and expecting the health care system to treat these men with respect — and speaking as if the burden of reproduction does not overwhelmingly fall on women. You can’t change the nature of reality through language alone. Trying to do so can seem, to employ a horribly overused word, like a form of gaslighting.

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. You can interpret this to support the contemporary notion of sex and gender as largely matters of self-identification. Or you can interpret it as many older feminists have, as a statement about how the world molds you into a woman, of how certain biological experiences reveal your place in the social order, and how your identity develops in response to gender’s constraints.

Seen this way, a gender-neutral version of Ginsburg’s quote is unintelligible, because she was talking not about the right of all people to pursue their own reproductive destiny, but about how male control of women’s reproductive lives makes women part of a subordinate class. The erasure of gendered language can feel like an insult, because it takes away the terms generations of feminists used to articulate their predicament.

The way I would answer this myself is that childbearing remains the domain of biological women (i.e., people who, when born, fit into the biological definition of “female”), even if they’ve become transsexual men.  This is what I think Goldberg means by saying, slyly, that “you can’t change the nature of reality through language alone.”

Her real objection, which I’ve put in bold, is that reproduction is but one of women’s “biological experiences” (I suppose menstruation is another, though I don’t see oppression as a “biological experience”) that cannot be had by biological men, and by “women” she means the term as it was used by earlier feminists. By saying that a man can become pregnant, the oppressor then gains membership in the class (“men”) that many feminists saw and still see as oppressors.

Although Goldberg doesn’t say so, the problem is the failure to distinguish between biological men and women on one hand and men and women who identify as members of the other sex on the other. Importantly, to activists, transmen are considered men in every respect, just a stranswomen are considered full woman.

But to Goldberg, “full” neglects history. What really irks her (and I can understand and sympathize with her position), is that biological women can not only be called “men”, but assumed to be men in every respect, including, thinks Goldberg, in their historical position as oppressors of women. (By the way, I don’t think that the ACLU quote “erased” gendered language, which it didn’t, but erased sexed language.)

Goldberg’s contortions to avoid seeming “transphobic”, I think, has obscured her point, which is a semantic one. (Or so I think: I may have misinterpreted her point.)

And regardless, I think that she’s still going to be demonized for writing this column.  But to her (and the ACLU’s) credit, the organization seems to go along with her. She reports:

On Monday, Anthony Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U., told me he regrets the R.B.G. tweet, and that in the future the organization won’t substantively alter anyone’s quotes. Still, he said, “Having spent time with Justice Ginsburg, I would like to believe that if she were alive today, she would encourage us to evolve our language to encompass a broader vision of gender, identity and sexuality.”

This may very well be the case. It’s also the case that she spoke specifically about women for a reason.

The problem is that the activists who approve of this redaction don’t care about altering history, even “for a reason”.  They just want to make historical language conform to modern norms.

42 thoughts on “ACLU admits it screwed up by changing RBG’s words; Michelle Goldberg explains why the changes were misleading

  1. The ACLU is heavily into transsexual rights, which is fine since those are civil rights,

    Civil rights are the common and equal rights of citizens. Its unclear how X’s rights, unless X is “citizen” can be about civil rights. Its unclear how making people performatively state their pronouns or the rest of the pseudo-religion has anything to do with civil rights or the equal rights of citizens, or how banning and/or burning books serves that purpose.

    The Civil Rights movement in the South was about ending segregation and voter suppression, where Blacks were citizens, but were not allowed to vote and were excluded from public facilities, so that civilly they would be equal under the law with whites. No one is excluding transpersons from voting or preventing them from using public facilities. As far as bathrooms and prisons, unfortunately sex crimes are overwhelmingly ~95% the domain of persons born biological men, and sex segregation is about protecting persons born biological females from rape and sexual assault. I would think freedom from rape would be an important “civil right” in the modern context.

    1. … and sex segregation is about protecting persons born biological females from rape and sexual assault.

      And simply from discomfort (the discomfort they may feel if they are, say, undressed in areas that biological males can access, regardless of any threat). Such discomfort matters to many women, so should matter to all of us.

      (And that discomfort is not “transphobic” since they are not saying they are more discomforted by biological males who identify as women than by biological males in general.)

  2. Look, unless the term “man” has become a Humpty Dumpty word that can mean anything (and thus “identifying as man” no longer means anything) I think anyone with any sense would agree that one of the basic requirements for being a man is the impossibility of giving birth and having pregnancies. I think that this requirement must be one necessary (but not sufficient) condition for being a man, in any reasonable sense of the term “man”.

    1. We must assume then, that trans-men do not want to get pregnant as a general rule and thus, the ability to avoid a pregnancy or terminate it is quite important to them.

      That doesn’t mean I think it was right to alter the RBG quote. It’s obvious to everybody with half a brain that, in context, RBG meant “adult human females who can get pregnant”.

      1. We don’t need to make any assumptions about what trans-men do or do not want, as a general rule or otherwise.

        And no, RBG didn’t mean “adult human females who can get pregnant” in this context, as opposed to some other. She simply meant “women,” and said so.

        1. I don’t know about you, but for me “adult human female” is a reasonable definition of the term “woman” and they can be used interchangeably.

          Reproductive rights are moot for women who cannot get pregnant (e.g. had a hysterectomy or past the menopause). The fact that RBG is talking about the decision of whether or not to bear children’s means she is implicitly talking about women (adult human females) who can reproduce.

          1. This will sound pedantic (because it is), and I apologize for that, but I think the point here is that language, and the use and abuse of language, is precisely what is at issue. So, yes, in certain contexts “adult human female” and “woman” are of course reasonably interchangeable terms, but the scientistic “I’m using clinical language and thus being even more accurate” has become an effective (and in my view pernicious) political tool. TomTom’s concern about “man” becoming a Humpty Dumpty word is that it no longer has a real-world referent, and therefore is rendered obsolete (in favor of “adult human with XY chromosomes” or “adult human with [insert your definition, as many words as you like, here].” Ceding ground to the adult-human-chest-feeder-jargon community is bad because it’s bad for language, and this because it tends to distort or obscure rather than clarify.

    1. Well, a first draft of a Pynchon novel, until he read it back and realised it sounded too much like a self-indulgent and overlong Rush instrumental..

            1. Pleonasm’s second album ‘Tautological Oxymoron’ was their best, then they dumped their original vocalist and got Chase Strangio in to replace her…

  3. . . . in the future the organization won’t substantively alter anyone’s quotes. . . . [My embolding]

    The inevitable weasel word. Couldn’t they just say they wouldn’t edit people’s utterances? I question what the ACLU thinks of as a substantive alteration.

  4. Goldberg’s contortions to avoid seeming “transphobic”, I think, has obscured her point,

    I think this one sentence neatly encapsulates the entire problem. Back in 1993, nobody criticised RBG on the grounds that she might be implying that women who can’t get pregnant for e.g. medical reasons or being past the menopause aren’t really women. There was an implicit understanding that she meant adult human females who are capable of getting pregnant.

    The reason we can no longer make that implicit assumption and why such august organisations as The Lancet got tied up in the “bodies with vaginas” knot is that some people are very quick to level the “transphobic” accusation. Reasonable people know that “women” in RBG’s quote really means “people who can get pregnant” and that it excludes some women who can’t get pregnant and all trans-women and it includes trans men. Unfortunately, being reasonable is passé.

  5. Is it a civil right to legally require people to accept your gender identity? I respect others’ right to their religious beliefs but I am not legally required to act myself in accordance with their faith. Why should I be required to accept the fictitious claim that someone is the sex they’re really not? The deliberate conflation of gender with sex is a deceptive tactic that serves this lie. While Goldberg says she’s not for changing the nature of reality through language alone, she’s failing to acknowledge that the U.S. legal system is well on the way with trying to do exactly that.

    It’s not “radical to define sex and gender so that childbearing is no longer women’s exclusive domain”, it’s radical to define sex as a class to include those who are not members of it. Males are not females and it’s simply wrong to pretend they are.

    1. I have lost track of whether gender, as opposed to sex, is a legally protected category from the standpoint of discrimination. Even if it were, though, at least in the US, you are not legally required to humor anyone’s adopted gender. (I believe that in the UK, this is covered by hate speak laws.) Your employer may differ in their view of the matter. There is the question, though, of whether it is polite to ignore someone’s stated gender in social situations. I think there has been an assumption on the part of trans activists that their position is one which is or should be legally protected from discrimination like sex is. I personally don’t know what the answer should be, other than knowing that hate speech laws would be terrible.

      1. I recall the Jordan Peterson was happy to address people with their preferred pronoun out of politeness but was unwilling to be compelled to do so by law.

        And I think that this is one of the main issues. How far should the law go to implement individual preferences? Hate speech is unpleasant but hate speech laws terrify me.

      2. I believe that in the UK, this is covered by hate speak laws.

        I don’t think it is. Saying someone has a different sex/gender from how they identify is not (yet!) a criminal offence in the UK. (As you say, doing it to a work colleague could amount to a disciplinary matter.)

      3. I thought Dan Savage made a good point on Bill Maher’s show the other week when he said that these anti-abortion laws are aimed specifically at cis/biological women, and while they do affect trans men and non-binary people, trying to wedge that into arguments – at least in this context – is distracting and derailing. Women are the targets of these laws, just as people of color are the targets of voter suppression laws. Yes, they’ll affect low-income white people too, but the point of these laws is to disenfranchise people of color, so we need to talk about these laws in that context.

        1. Of course women are the target of the laws, because women have abortions. But that does not mean that anti-abortion laws are just a way to annoy women. Probably most who support them do so not to annoy women but because they believe that abortion is murder. You might disagree with that, but have to take into account what other people believe when discussing their motivations.

          1. I take exception to your use of the word “annoy.” Forced pregnancy is much more than an annoyance. Of course there are plenty who are against abortion because they believe it’s murder; I’m not disputing that, even though I disagree strenuously.

        2. Well said. I’m trying to write a post about the new Texas law, but I’m an old feminist. My focus in the way I write is CIS women because of that. I therefore worry I will be accused of of transphobia. It’s so easy to get the language wrong unintentionally.

      4. “There is the question, though, of whether it is polite to ignore someone’s stated gender in social situations.”

        I’m not sure how one should reasonably and appropriately respond to someone stating their gender in social situations. Would “I respectfully and congenially acknowledge your gender” suffice? And am I required to notice whether anyone of their own volition cares to notice or otherwise reflect on my own apparent gender? Am I required to announce it? And am I required to remember any- and everyone’s gender (identity preference)? On an NPR segment a couple of years ago, I heard someone say she/he/they kept folks’ gender pronouns on file on her/his/their smartphone for quick reference. For how many people is one reasonably expected to do that? I function quite well with my clamshell phone, using it as a phone, noting the occasional unsolicited text.

      5. 20ish years ago at my previous institution I was in a management role where I was responsible for chairing hiring committees. The institution had a commitment to hiring from ‘protected categories’, which included people of colour, people with disabilities and women. So, if you had two candidates who were otherwise equally qualified, you went with the candidate from the protected category. Designation into protected categories was done entirely on a self-declared basis, by the candidate ticking the box. We were not allowed to question this – so if someone who was clearly male said he was a woman, we had to accept that he was in a protected category.

    2. Who are you to question the radical left? They are obviously true radicals or the Ford Foundation wouldn’t throw so much money at them.

  6. The key element of the woke posture is the hope to “change the nature of reality through language alone.” This is why speakers of woke insist that sex is “assigned” rather than observed. In the second step, past statements are to be either cancelled or rewritten to comply with the new language. Next, the use of the new language is written into law, so as to compel everyone to use it—hence the otherwise comical fixation on pronouns. In the last step, when a votary of wokeism holds up four fingers (like O’Brien in that scene in “1984”), it will be required of everyone to see five. Those who still see four will suffer prosecution or civil action, perhaps brought against them by the fully reformed ACLU.

    1. Discover Magazine is going the way of Scientific American, to sow confusion where once was clarity. If we can be confused, then it is harder to see that there is a deliberate effort to change the nature of reality with words.

      With all of the complexity in sexual traits, why has the binary model been so dominant for so long? It may come down to the human tendency to pathologize traits that are viewed as not “normal.” This is perhaps best exemplified by the treatment of intersex individuals.

      By sticking to the “girls make eggs, and boys make sperm” model for so long we have been suppressive of nonbinaries. Also, intersex people can’t get anyone to listen to the fact that they do not want anyone to use their conditions as justification for letting men into women’s private spaces on the pretext of being assigned the wrong sex.

      1. Anyone who thinks that trans activism has anything at all to do with intersex individuals is probably seriously mistaken.

        Note that many or most intersex people would like to be recognized for what they are, rather than being shoehorned into one category or another, while many or most trans people don’t want to be seen as something in-between at all, but rather full members of one of two very binary groups, just not the one they were born into.

        There are cases of transsexual people who are intersexual and assigned a sex at birth with surgery and hormones to match who think that that decision is wrong. That is a very small minority of trans people and a very small minority of intersexual people, but they do exist. However, neither they nor other intersexual people are really relevant for the current debate.

        One of the more-famous examples: (in the old days often seen with full beard, deerstalker hat, and pipe).

  7. Romero alluded to an important point, though he tried to handwave it aside: outside of maybe RGB’s inner circle, does anyone really know where RGB would’ve come down on some of these issues? I’m not aware of any public speaking she did on issues such as having trans women compete in women’s athletics, placing trans women in women’s prisons, and so on. There are degrees and nuance here and not everyone who self-labels as liberal agrees on these issues.

    So while RGB was a liberal, another reason not to alter her words is that it’s no clear she would’ve agreed with changes or their implied meaning. Merely being a liberal doesn’t mean you necessarily do.

  8. The ACLU is heavily into transsexual rights, which is fine since those are civil rights, but they’ve gone overboard on this before …

    It’s the transsexual rights which went overboard when they turned into transgender rights. The first involved civil rights such as the right to work, to housing, to services, etc. without being penalized because you presented yourself as the opposite sex. The explanation for why transsexuals were transexual wasn’t relevant.

    Transgender rights, however, insists on the acceptance of a particular explanation. Failing to agree that sex is mostly a social construct and what makes someone male or female is an undefinable, internal, innate subjective sense that one is male/ man, female/woman, both, or neither, is considered hateful, a form of discrimination in and of itself. That’s not a civil right. That’s not anything like a phobia, or bigotry.

    But agreement with Gender Identity doctrine has to be considered a civic duty in order for people to have their inner certainties treated as public facts. Feminism is the belief that women are discriminated against on the basis of sex through the means of gender. Substituting “gender” for “sex” doesn’t fit.

  9. On an aside, I think the simplest way of distinguishing between male and female sex, is the Y chromosome. If a Y chromosome : male, if not: female.
    There are, of course, some very rare cases where the Y chromosome is not functional, or the receptors for the product initiated (mainly testosterone) are not fully functional in some target tissues, but they are quite rare (estimates range from 1/ 20,000 to 1/100,000) . I’m thinking of male pseudo-hermaphrodites (I’m sure there must be a new terms now) such as Caster Semenya or Christine Mboma. They appear less rare than they are, because they do so well in women’s sports, there is a kind of selection process.
    It should be stressed they are not cheats, contrary to males ‘identifying’ as women, but they are still biological males and should not compete in women’s sports.
    I think it is important to make the distinction between pseudo-hermaphrodites and transgenders. I would not put a male pseudo-hermaphrodite in a male prison, contrary to a male-to-female transgender. (yes,I know that would violate my simple rule of absence or presence of a Y chromosome, but prisons have a rape culture, and I’d fear for the fate of pseudo-hermaphrodites in a male prison).
    Back to the subject of the post: it is unconscionable to alter a citation to accommodate your own preferences. RBG was clearly talking about women (without a Y chromosome), not all kinds of ‘people’.

  10. It’s interesting to skim through the comments on Goldberg’s column and to compare the Times picks and the Reader picks – both the tone and the number of recommendations are widely separated. The readership is clearly less woke than the paper, by a wide margin.

    1. This shows up often in NYT comments when they are enabled on any story related to social justice, free speech, etc. Like you say, the readership (the commentariat, at least) is less woke than the paper.

      I may be overly optimistic, but I’ve seen signs in the past couple months that the paper is attempting to move the needle back to a more classical liberalism. The hiring of John McWhorter is one of them.

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