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  • Lucy Thackray

RBG, Mrs America, and the search for Britain's political 'sheroes'

Feminist activists Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug with actor Lily Tomlin in 1977
Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug with actor Lily Tomlin in 1977

I regret to say I had only really taken an interest in the life and work of the late Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the year or two before she died. I'd read some articles about her famous dissents on big US judgments over the years, but it was the boredom of a long-haul flight that first prompted me to flick on the 2018 documentary RBG. It took me from complete stranger to ardent fan in 98 minutes. Here was an extraordinary life, a woman who just knew she could - should, even - go to law school and dedicate her life to the legal system. Even as a college student in the mid 1950s, with a small baby and an ill husband at home, she cared for them both, took notes for her husband, was chosen to work on the Harvard Law Review and came joint-first in her class. There was seemingly never any doubt in Bader Ginsburg's mind that she would work in this male-dominated world and make a difference. Hearing her talk about her career, it appeared that she wasn't much preoccupied with whether she should be staying at home, or whether the men around her thought she was qualified, brilliant or an interloper. There was seemingly no agonising decision to be made - she simply was a lawyer, as she was a Brooklynite or a brunette. Even if RBG hadn't come to be the liberal icon she did, she's a fascinating voice from the frontier of working women, a self-contained moral compass of a person who was going to battle on quietly whether she was celebrated or denigrated. The very idea of her makes you want to sit up straight, work harder, take a punch at that glass ceiling.

RBG (as a character) makes a small cameo in the riveting FX series Mrs America, currently on BBC iPlayer. In a scene where Women's Liberation sheroes Gloria Steinem and Brenda Feigen are discussing the best way to confront anti-feminist poster-girl Phyllis Schlafly, it is briefly suggested that the soft-spoken Bader Ginsburg should face her in a public debate. 'Oh no,' she smiles. 'I don't like the limelight.' It's a delicious nugget of prophecy that this sort of true-life retro TV drama does so well - of course, RBG would go on to be arguably the world's most famous female lawyer. And she's just one of the intriguing, boundary-pushing women you'll be googling after watching Mrs America: witnessing women of all shapes, races, styles, backgrounds and approaches pushing back on the patriarchy is invigorating in a time when we still face creeping restrictions on such 1970s topics as abortion rights and inclusive sex education. Phyllis Schlafly's views on women in the workplace, abortion, and sexual harrassment still ring through political debate today; but it is the housewife-offending 'libbers' who light up the screen. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to US congress; outspoken, steely Bella Abzug (played by the woefully un-awarded Margo Martindale); and divisive, mini-skirted Steinem, as iconic for her streaked centre-parting and aviator sunglasses as for her shake-up of the public conversation. There's a fearlessness, camaraderie and excitement to the depiction of this army of women turning the world upside down. Similar to my wave of RBG-mania in the wake of that documentary, I felt compelled to research these women, reading their interviews and profiles, trawling through pictures of them laughing and chanting together at protests and rallies.

One contemporary politician who would have certainly run with this crowd of 'nasty women' is another three-letter wonder - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, better known as AOC. Thanks to the global ripple of social media (and her team's knack for capturing bite-sized, cinematic moments of this youngest-ever congresswoman speaking truth to power) AOC is the sort of feminist who attracts the same adoration (and flak) as the 1970s 'libbers'. As her star rises, columnists and tweeters alike have taken to pondering, 'Who is the British AOC?', To which the answer is - of course - that we don't have one. Taking into account the press's attempts to distract us with their fashion and hair choices, or other faux pas for which male politicians are rarely zeroed in on, British politicians rarely seem to be as fiery, articulate or unabashedly feminist. Even the most high-profile or inspiring - Diane Abbott, Jess Phillips, Mhairi Black - seem slightly put-upon and resigned to their fate; more traipsing back into work to face another day of predictable bullsh*t than lighting up parliament with oratorical fireworks.

It should be acknowledged, too, that the British AOC need not be a woman at all - Ocasio-Cortez's appeal springs more from the fact that she is a real person, a former bartender from the Bronx who knows what it means to face eviction, be plunged into debt by medical bills or live on minimum wage. A young working-class man could just as easily rival her on the UK's political circuit, but we're a little short on those, too. British Vogue recently ran an uplifting cover feature about some of the activists and elected officials we should be looking up to, but it felt watered down with too many models, actors and establishment-types who (admirably) are simply amplifying great causes. They're not the ones down in the scrum, enacting real change. One exception was my own MP, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, who is indeed a fabulous role model, expert and speaker of truth to power (even if some feel she should watch her tone). We need more of her - the visible, political women; the 'sheroes' - who will ignite a new generation of young feminists and campaigners. Protest and pioneering women have never looked as good as they do in Mrs America. Perhaps it's time they came back into fashion.

British MP Rosena Allin-Khan poses in a T shirt that reads How's My Tone, Hun?
'How's my tone, hun?' MP Rosena Allin-Khan embraces her internet popularity

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