Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that Vicki Kohl has won our writing contest on the theme of Ekphrasis with her piece "I Am Become a Name."
Vicki Kohl is a retired high school English and journalism teacher. Much of her writing for 30+ years were comments to students on their writing, letters of recommendation and emails. She did have an essay on Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" win recognition from the Jane Austen Society of North America several years ago, so there's that. And she wrote the Olathe Community Theater's newsletter for several years. Other than that, she's toying with the idea of writing essays and poetry, having attended the recent Writing Conference at the Johnson County Library.
“I Am Become a Name”
“I am become a name.” That line from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” comes to my mind as I stand in
front of Patti Streeper’s portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or RBG. And, there she stands in black
with that iconic lace collar, nearly life size, looking back at me with intense and arresting eyes.
Those initials, that white collar, and even her face have become images that mean something to
so many—especially to women. She has become a name, indeed. So much so that I sometimes
think people don’t understand what a firebrand she was.
In the portrait, Ginsburg almost floats in a sea of dark red with small, fractal squares breaking up
the portrait in lines around her head, across her heart and across her clasped hands. Those small
squares glow in varying shades of the black, white and red that dominate the portrait. Those
squares provide movement to what would otherwise be a static painting. It’s as though her mind
working—organizing and shifting through the complexities of the court cases, the wording of the
Those squares seem to fracture the portrait, even breaking up the planes of her face. And, that
fracturing seems appropriate to me because RBG fractured the ideas of many as to what our
Constitution guaranteed to U.S. citizens, all its citizens. I have come to know some of what I owe
to her—although I am sure that I don’t know the full measure. Because of her work, I have been
able to get a credit card in my own name, to establish my own credit, to buy a car or a house on
my own. I’m sure many women take those things for granted, thinking “Of course, I can get a
credit card or a loan. Why wouldn’t I?” But until the mid-1970s that was not so—only 50 years
And I think RBG would think that such financial independence for women is as it should be. She
helped to establish that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment should be used to
strike down laws that discriminated against women.
Beyond her work at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, Ginsburg continued to fracture
expectations. She made history as the first Jewish Supreme Court justice (as well as the second
woman) with Jimmy Carter’s appointment of her as a Supreme Court justice in 1993. At the
time, I understood that appointment as being a breakthrough, but as the years went by, I came to
understand how much she was shaking up old attitudes. She never held back in advocating for a
full application of the freedoms of the Constitution for those who have been marginalized
throughout our country’s history—women, minorities, different religions, sexual preference, to
name a few.
Her ideas and written opinions, whether dissenting or concurring, began to move the public’s
eyes and ears her way. A further fracturing of old attitudes. As she said, “I didn’t change the
Constitution; the equality principle was there from the start. I just was an advocate for seeing its
full realization.” However, there were and still are people who disagree with her interpretations
of the Constitution, which she believed offered freedom to all. And she, of course, was cognizant
of that disagreement, saying “My dissenting opinions, like my briefs, are meant to persuade. And
sometimes one must be forceful about saying how wrong the Court is.” She knew the importance
of pushing back, even if the case was not settled as she thought it should be.
This was a woman of passion. A splotch of red over her black gown along with the enveloping
red background color speaks to that passion that kept her working into her 80’s; she was an
enduring force. And we lost a champion when we lost her.
I worry that some of the fracture lines she created may be inching back together and the progress
that has happened for the marginalized will be taken away. Maybe I should take heart in her
optimism: Ginsburg said, “I am optimistic in the long run. A great man once said the true symbol
of the United States is not the bald eagle, it's the pendulum, and when the pendulum swings too
far in one direction, it will go back.”
I hope so, and I hope that she will be more than a name or a poster for future generations. I hope
that those future generations study her and continue her fight. They will need to if they want to
ensure equality and freedom—as she said, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a
time.” We need to keep fracturing those repressive and limiting boundaries.