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February 06, 2011
Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke at GW about her life as a pioneering feminist and Supreme Court justice.
By Jennifer Eder
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg offers the same advice for a successful marriage as she does for dealing with her colleagues on the court.
Wear ear plugs once in a while.
“Shortly before my wedding ceremony, my mother-in-law said, ‘Honey, I want to tell you something. In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf,’” said Justice Ginsburg. “Then she gave me a pair of ear plugs, and I have found that her advice worked not only in a marriage but with dealing with my colleagues.”
Justice Ginsburg gave this advice during an interview with Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legal affairs correspondent and Inside Washington panelist, at GW’s Lisner Auditorium. The event was sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program.
Although the 1,490 seat auditorium was packed, the event had an intimate feel as 77-year-old Justice Ginsburg, the Supreme Court’s second female justice, shared details of her life as a trailblazing feminist, her marriage of 56 years and her experiences on the nation’s highest court.
In his welcoming remarks, President Steven Knapp thanked the Smithsonian for its century-long partnership with GW.
“The Smithsonian and GW have enjoyed a full range of collaboration literally for decades,” said Richard Current, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for history, art and culture. “We’ve done joint research projects together. We’ve taught together, and we’ve presented many Smithsonian programs here at Lisner Auditorium.”
Ms. Totenberg, who has covered the Supreme Court for more than 35 years and been honored seven times by the American Bar Association for excellence in legal reporting, described Justice Ginsburg in her introductory remarks as someone who has “quite simply changed the way the world is for American women today.”
“For more than a decade until her first judicial appointment in 1980, she led the fight in the courts for gender equality. When she began her legal crusade, women were treated by law differently from men. Thousands of state, federal and local laws restricted what women could do, barring them from jobs and even from jury service. But by the time Ruth Ginsburg donned judicial robes, she had worked a revolution,” said Ms. Totenberg, who has been a longtime friend of Justice Ginsburg and even had the justice officiate her wedding in 2000.
Justice Ginsburg, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959, where she tied for number one in her class and became the first woman to work on both the Harvard Law Review and the Columbia Law Review. After graduating, she got her first job as a clerk for a federal judge, although he was reluctant to give her the position because she was a woman and had a 4-year-old daughter.
“The assumption was when a woman had a child, she will become a dropout,” said Justice Ginsburg.
While a professor at Rutgers University, Justice Ginsburg participated in an equal pay lawsuit against the university, and while a professor at Columbia, she joined another sex discrimination class-action lawsuit and protested when the university tried to lay off 25 maids to save money but not a single janitor.
“People that know you say you’re a very special kind of feminist. Shy and retiring on the one hand and unyielding on the other,” said Ms. Totenberg.
As a lawyer, Justice Ginsburg tried and won the famous Reed vs. Reed case before the Supreme Court, arguing that the 14th Amendment protects women’s rights in gender discrimination claims. And before joining the high court, she served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for 13 years.
When Justice Ginsburg was nominated by President Bill Clinton to join the Supreme Court in 1993, there was only one other woman on the bench, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Justice Ginsburg said in those early days, the court wasn’t used to having women around. Lawyers would often misspeak and call her Justice O’Connor or vice versa. And it wasn’t until she joined the bench that the court installed a women’s bathroom equal in size to the men’s.
“Justice O’Connor had been on the court for 12 years, and in that time no one thought maybe it would be convenient if they had a women’s bathroom,” she said.
Although most of today’s laws no longer discriminate on the basis of sex, Justice Ginsburg said a lot of work still needs to be done to make it easier for women to have both a family and work life.
Justice Ginsburg spoke about her love-hate relationship with Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she often differs greatly in opinion. Referring to him as her “old sparring partner” Ms. Totenberg asked her what she liked so much about Justice Scalia.
“He makes me smile, sometimes even laugh. You know he’s a very amusing fella. He’s very smart. He’s a damn good writer,” Justice Ginsburg said. “Our friendship does go back a long way, and we genuinely care about each other. When I had diverticulitis, I was very sick, and I was in a hospital on the island of Crete. And he was the first one to call to ask how I was.”
Ms. Totenberg also asked Justice Ginsberg how fast the Supreme Court could hear a case examining the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care law. Last week, a Florida district court ruled the law unconstitutional.
Although the court has received a few cases in the past very quickly, such as the Pentagon Papers and the Steel Seizure Case, Justice Ginsburg said most cases travel rather slow.
“The court itself is a reactive institution,” she said. “We don’t decide ‘we better get this or that case sooner rather than later.’”
Throughout her time on the bench, Justice Ginsburg has shown enormous strength and tenacity.
In 1999, she was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent chemotherapy and radiation but never missed a day on the bench. In 2009, she had to undergo surgery for pancreatic cancer but was back to work in less than two weeks. And in 2010, her husband of 56 years, Martin Ginsburg, died from complications of metastatic cancer. She announced an opinion on the bench the next day.
“I thought ‘what would he want me to do tomorrow. Would he want me to stay home or go to the court and read my announcement?’ It was easy. I knew what he would have wanted me to do,” Justice Ginsburg said.
She said two things have carried her along after the death of her husband, who she said loved her, supported her and made her smile every day: her work and her two children.
“The work is all consuming, and it keeps me thinking about things other than myself,” said Justice Ginsburg, who as a night owl often works into the wee hours of the morning. “The children have been so supportive, but mostly it’s thinking about Marty and knowing that he would want me to carry on with what I’m doing.”
In addition to sharing her best advice on marriage, Justice Ginsburg also shared her best advice on life, which came from her mother who died when Justice Ginsburg was 17.
“She told me to be independent and be a lady. By being a lady she didn’t mean wearing a white blouse and a hat. She meant don’t allow yourself to be distracted by emotions like anger and jealousy,” she said. “Those emotions sap time and do no good. So whatever was in the past, you forget it and go on to the next challenge and do the best you can.”
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