Justice  Prevails

A conversation with Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54

After Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 graduated Columbia Law School tied for first in her class, she was recommended as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter—but she was turned down due to her gender. A generation later, how times had changed: Ginsburg became the second woman to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Now eighty, Ginsburg has emerged as the leader of the court’s liberal wing, having voted in favor of such issues as affirmative action, marriage equality, campaign finance limits, gun control, and abortion rights. Among her proudest achievements, she says, is United States v. Virginia (1996), in which she wrote the majority opinion in the 7-1 decision that ended the exclusion of women from the Virginia Military Institute. In Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007), she wrote a strong dissent that ultimately prompted Congress to pass a law making it easier for workers to win claims of salary discrimination on the basis of gender.

Born in Brooklyn, the younger daughter of a furrier and a homemaker, Ruth Bader was a stellar student despite personal travails; she lost her sister to meningitis in childhood, and her mother died of cancer the day she graduated from high school. At Cornell—which she attended as a New York State Scholar—she majored in government, pledged Alpha Epsilon Phi, and belonged to the Women’s Self-Governance Association. Shortly after graduating Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, she married Martin Ginsburg ’53, who’d just completed his first year at Harvard Law. Their first child, Jane, was born during a two-year stint in Oklahoma, where her husband was stationed during military service. She enrolled at Harvard Law in 1956, one of just nine women in a class of more than 500; after two years she transferred to Columbia when her husband—who would become one of the nation’s leading tax attorneys, with a client list that included Ross Perot—got a job at a New York firm.

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Photo: Todd Heisler/The New York Times / REDUX

Despite Ginsburg’s unimpeachable credentials, no firm in the city made her an offer after she graduated from Columbia. She spent two years as a clerk in the U.S. District Court, pursued an academic career at Columbia and Rutgers, and eventually became a leading legal advocate for gender equality. She argued six cases before the Supreme Court, winning five. Her victories include Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), which prohibited discrimination in military benefits on the basis of gender, and Duren v. Missouri (1979), which struck down a law making jury service optional for women. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter nominated her to the nation’s second-highest court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where she served until President Bill Clinton named her to the Supreme Court in 1993. After a relatively low-key review by the Senate Judiciary Committee, she was confirmed 96-3.

senior portrait

Senior portrait (1954 yearbook)

Ruth and Marty Ginsburg had a storied union that lasted until his death in 2010 at age seventy-eight. Long before societal shifts in favor of shared household responsibilities, he took an active role in childrearing and—after a now-infamous tuna casserole she served him during his Army days—took charge of the kitchen, teaching himself classic French cuisine from an Escoffier cookbook they’d received as a wedding gift. Daughter Jane is a professor at Columbia Law School; the couple’s second child, James, runs a classical music label. Ginsburg has four grandchildren.

Now the eldest member of the Supreme Court, Ginsburg—who has twice survived cancer—has recently faced predictable pressure to retire while President Obama remains in office. “It’s a logical question to ask considering my age,” she admits—but she has no plans to step down, being in full possession of her faculties. And after all: Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010, served robustly until the age of ninety.

In mid-August, Ginsburg sat down with CAM in her chambers, whose décor includes modern art, dozens of family photos, a Ruth Bader Ginsburg bobblehead, and a sugar cake-topper depicting her as her favorite opera character: the Marschallin, Princess von Werdenberg, in Der Rosenkavalier.

Cornell Alumni Magazine: What was it like to be a woman student at Cornell in the early Fifties?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: It was a different world. In the Arts college, there were four men to every woman. The reason given: the women had to live in the dormitories while the men could live in Collegetown. As a result, the women in my class were ever so much smarter than the men. It was not a good time for the United States; it was the heyday of Senator Joe McCarthy from Wisconsin, promoter of the Red Scare. The greatest thing about Cornell, in addition to the incredible beauty of the place, was the faculty. I was a government major so I had Robert Cushman ’40, PhD ’49, for Constitutional law, Mario Einaudi who taught comparative government, Clint Rossiter ’39 who taught American government, and Milton Konvitz, PhD ’33, who taught American ideas. I had Nabokov for European literature, and to this day I can hear that great man speaking. He changed the way I read; he changed the way I write. He was an unforgettable character. One thing more, my husband of fifty-six years was one year ahead of me at Cornell. We met when I was in my first year. He was extraordinary for that era, a guy who cared that I had a brain.

CAM: Are there lessons from Professor Nabokov that you still find useful?

RBG: He was in love with the sound of words, and the placement of words was very important. English was not his first language, but he told us why he liked writing in English more than in French. He gave us a very simple example: “a white horse.” In English, you see “white” before you hear “horse,” so when you get to “horse” it’s already white. In French one says le cheval blanc. You see le cheval first, probably colored brown. Then you must adjust the image to make it white. When I read Lolita, I could hear him saying her name musically, Lo-lee-ta. He had a fantastic imagination. He would make up things. When he lectured on [the Nikolai Gogol novel] Dead Souls, he invented a word, “poshlist.” A poshlist is a very material, conventional person, who shows how bold he or she is by doing something unconventional in the most conventional way; his example was Emma Bovary smoking a cigarette on the street. Everyone loved his class. I don’t think anyone ever missed it willingly.

CAM: You and your husband met on a blind date on campus your freshman year. Where did you go?

RBG: I don’t remember. I think it was a fraternity party. At the time he had a girlfriend at Smith and I had a boyfriend at Columbia Law School. Our friends thought it would be a good idea for us to spend time together during the week. Marty had a grey Chevrolet. My friend and her boyfriend thought we could double date, moving easily from place to place in Marty’s car. That whole first year we were just good friends. He would tell me everything on his mind. Not a bad way to start a relationship.

CAM: Could you share your secrets for a successful marriage?

RBG: My beloved mother-in-law’s advice: “In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” It proved great advice, not simply in relations with my dear spouse, but even today, in relating to my colleagues on the Supreme Court. When something unkind is said, forget it. Treat it as if the words were never spoken. Something else Marty’s mother did when times were rough—a typical example, our childcare aide moved away during my last year in law school. (My daughter, Jane, was then between three and four.) Mother would put a sign on our bedroom mirror, “Even this shall pass.” However low you were feeling at the moment, it would pass. Perhaps the best advice I ever got came from my father-in-law. When Marty completed his first year of law school, he was called up for two years in service. So we went off to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, home of the artillery school. A few weeks there, I became pregnant, a joyous thing, yet I worried: how will I manage law school with an infant? (Jane was fourteen months old when I became a “1L.”) Marty’s father’s advice: “Ruth, if you don’t want to go to law school, you have the best reason in the world and no one would think less of you. But if you really want to go to law school you will stop feeling sorry for yourself; you will find a way.” That advice works for me to this very day: “Do I want this enough? If I do, I’ll find a way.”

CAM: You were working for Social Security when you found out you were expecting your daughter—and as a result you were demoted and your pay was cut. How did your experiences with gender discrimination inspire you to effect change?

RBG: Many things like that happened. I put them on a back burner. I didn’t think there was anything one could do about it. It was expected that when you became pregnant you would leave paid work and not come back. There was no maternity leave; we just got severance pay. One experience I had many times over; most women my age have experienced it. A woman could be attending a meeting and say something she thought helpful. Her remark is greeted by silence. Then fifteen minutes later, a man says the same thing—”That’s a fine idea,” he is told. It’s as though they weren’t expecting a woman to say anything worth listening to.

Photo: AP photo/Ed Bailey

Ginsburg and her husband, Martin Ginsburg ’53, in 2003. In addition to being a leading tax attorney, Marty Ginsburg was an accomplished home chef; in 2011, four dozen of his recipes were published posthumously in the volume Chef Supreme.

‘My beloved mother-in-law’s advice: ”In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” It proved great advice, not simply in relations with my dear spouse, but even today, in relating to my colleagues on the Supreme Court.’ The changes I’ve seen in my lifetime are enormous. My children are ten years apart—Jane was born in 1955, James in ’65—and by then I was working at Rutgers Law School on a year-to-year contract. I feared that if I told the dean I was pregnant, my contract would not be renewed. So for the last couple of months I wore my mother-in-law’s clothes; she was one size larger. Then, with the renewed contract in hand, I told my colleagues the last day of the term, “When I come back in the fall there’ll be one more in my family.” I was tenured at Rutgers in 1969, when the civil rights movement was still under way, and the revived women’s movement was burgeoning. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, where I could help in the effort to nudge social change along.

CAM: Do you think that women’s lives are unequivocally better now than they were then, or have there been some losses along with the gains?

RBG: Adults have to make choices, and there’s no doubt women have many more choices than they once did. Do I think there’s any loss from days when women were typecast—”You’re a woman; naturally you take care of the home and children”? Women today can do with their lives what they will. Even in the early Seventies when I was arguing gender discrimination cases, I knew that most judges would not really understand what I was talking about. They had the idea, “We know race discrimination is bad; so is discrimination on the basis of religion or national origin. But sex? We treat our wives and daughters very well.” I tried to get them to think of what they would want their daughter’s or their granddaughter’s opportunities to be. It was all about choices—instead of being hemmed in, relegated to a corner of man’s wide world, the doors would be open and if a woman wanted to, she could walk through them.

Of course, it is not easy when you’re raising children and you have a demanding job. When I look at it in retrospect, it seemed long while I was going through it, but now I’ve had so many more years of my life without childcare responsibilities than with them. That reality has played an important role in increasing the participation of women—they are going to live many years with no childcare responsibilities. What are they going to do with those years? Many bright women of my generation at Cornell did the traditional thing, they did what society expected of them. Their husbands climbed the ladder in a chosen career. Then, twenty years later, they find themselves caged. The main idea of the revived feminist movement was no cages or pigeonholes—no assumption that because you’re a woman you are this way and because you’re a man, that way. You should have the opportunity to follow wherever your talent and will take you. It’s a very healthy development for society. 

CAM: What gains do you think still need to be made for women? What fights still need to be fought?

‘Even now, twenty years later, when I walk into the courtroom I’m still in awe. Sometimes I think it’s all a dream.’ RBG: There’s a formidable problem, mainly in the corporate world and in large law firms: the notion that you must be totally committed to the firm. You must be there at all hours, there’s no room for home. To me that notion is puzzling. One would think that with modern means of communication, it should be much easier to do whatever is needed from home. And yet, the large firms haven’t made that adjustment. I think it will take young people to insist, “People should have a family life and a work life, and each should balance, and provide respite from, the other.” My dear husband headed the tax department at his firm. We made an agreement that unless something really important delayed us, we would have dinner together as a family. If there’s a will you can do it; the tax department wasn’t losing money because he wasn’t there at all hours. The image needs to be changed, and we’ll all be better off for it—men, women, and children.

CAM: Was it especially meaningful to come on the Supreme Court having lost the opportunity to clerk solely due to your gender?

RBG: Justice Frankfurter had taken the first African American clerk, yet he couldn’t adjust to the idea of a woman as a law clerk. He thought it would make him uncomfortable. Even more than for Frankfurter, I wanted to clerk for Learned Hand on the Second Circuit, a great judge. The judge for whom I clerked lived around the corner from Hand, and would drive him home. I would sometimes sit in the back of the car. The man would say or sing anything that came into his head. I once asked, “Judge Hand, in this car you speak freely—you say words my mother never taught me. I don’t seem to be inhibiting you.” He replied, “Young lady, I’m not looking at you.” You see, he was in the front seat, I was in the back. He wasn’t looking at me, so he felt no need to censor his speech.

CAM: What atmosphere do you strive to create in your chambers for your clerks?

RBG: These chambers work as hard as or harder than any other, but we are flexible. I’ve had more than a few clerks with children. Some terms ago I engaged a woman who had a three-year-old when I hired her. By the time she embarked on the clerkship, she had a one-year-old as well. On top of that she was an Orthodox Jew, so we had to make sure she left in good time before sundown [on the Sabbath]. I never felt the least bit disadvantaged. I don’t know how she did it, but she arranged her work schedule so that the job could be done efficiently.

CAM: Very few people ever sit where you do as a Justice. What’s the view like from your side of the bench? Is it what you expected?

RBG: Even now, twenty years later, when I walk into the courtroom I’m still in awe. Sometimes I think it’s all a dream. What surprised me most was the collegiality of this place. Even though we divide sharply on some very important matters, we all get along with each other, we respect each other, we even like each other. We work together as a family. I can say that from surviving two cancer bouts while serving on the Court. My colleagues rallied around me and enabled me to get through those trying times. Whatever might appear from some sharply divided opinions, we know that we must get over whatever momentary annoyance we feel. We revere the Court. We don’t want to leave it in worse shape than we found it.

CAM: From the layperson’s view, your job seems like such a heavy burden. Does it always feel like an awesome responsibility?

RBG: Yes. I often fall asleep thinking about the issues that the cases we take up present.

CAM: What are your work habits?

RBG: They’re bad; I tend to work until the job is done. My husband would say, “If you would leave off and come to bed, in the morning the issues will be clearer.” He was right. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a maze, then go to sleep thinking about the way out, and when I wake up in the morning I see the path. But now there’s no one telling me it’s time to quit.

Obama and Ginsberg

Ginsburg greets President Barack Obama before his address to the nation in 2010. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

CAM: Last term, you gave a striking number of oral dissents. Could you talk about the role of the dissent in Constitutional law? Why is an opinion important when it’s not on the winning side?

RBG: Dissents are summarized from the bench when the Justice wants the public to know that, in her opinion, the Court got it terribly wrong. If it’s a question of statutory interpretation, one can get an immediate correction from Congress, as occurred in the Lilly Ledbetter case. If you think the court has misconstrued Congress, Congress can change the law. If it’s a Constitutional question, only the Court itself or an amendment to the Constitution can cure the error. Let’s go back to 1857, the Dred Scott decision [affirming that slaves are property]. There were two dissents. One of them, by Justice Curtis, is particularly compelling. When the court makes a dreadful mistake it’s nice that we can look back and see that some members of the Court recognized the danger from the start.

In the Red Scare around the time of World War I, Brandeis and Holmes reminded the public [in the 1925 case Gitlow v. New York] that the First Amendment instructs Congress to pass no law abridging freedom of speech. Or think of Plessy v. Ferguson [which upheld the constitutionality of segregation] and before that, the civil rights cases that addressed racial segregation in places of public accommodation. When the Court comes to see that it has made a dreadful mistake—that’s what the dissenter is hoping for. You write to capture a future court.

CAM: You and Justice Scalia are the subject of a comic opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, that’s in the process of being written. As a lifelong opera fan, how does that feel?

RBG: Great. Especially because the person who plays me is a lyric soprano and in reality, I’m a monotone. Scalia is a tenor in the opera and in life. The composer, who just graduated from University of Maryland Law School, said he was reading in his Constitutional law class things we said in opinions, speeches we had made, and thought, “This is good stuff,” fit for an operatic stage.

CAM: Are there any similarities between a good opera and life at the Supreme Court? Is it an operatic world here?

RBG: In opera, everything is exaggerated, everything is very dramatic. Here, we try to keep the temperature low. Consider the words of Justice Scalia’s “rage aria” [from Scalia/Ginsburg]: “The justices are blind; how can they possibly spout this? The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this!” My response is to this effect: “You are in search of bright-line solutions for problems that don’t have easy answers. But the great thing about our Constitution is that, like our society, it can evolve.”

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