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If you like Ruth Bader Ginsburg's story, you might also like:
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Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
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Ruth Bader Ginsburg Interview (page: 3 / 5)

Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

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  Ruth Bader Ginsburg

What kind of student were you? You went to public schools, we understand.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I went to P.S. 238 in Brooklyn and to James Madison High School in Brooklyn. I was a good student, in some part to please my mother. I wanted to bring home a report card that she would find satisfactory.

Do you remember enjoying particular books when you were growing up?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I think that most girls who grew up when I did were very fond of the Nancy Drew series. Not because they were well written, they weren't, but because this was a girl who was an adventurer, who could think for herself, who was the dominant person in her relationship with her young boyfriend. So the Nancy Drew series made girls feel good, that they could be achievers and they didn't have to take a back seat or be wallflowers. So the Nancy Drew series was important to me. When I was even younger, I loved mythology. I loved Greek mythology and Norse mythology.

We've read that your mother would take you to the library.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Yes, that was a once-a-week treat. She would take me to the library, which was on the second floor over a Chinese restaurant, and so Chinese food has always been associated with pleasant experiences for me. She would leave me in the children's section while she would get her hair done, and by the time she finished, I would have selected the three books that I was taking home for that week.

Did you read them all?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Interview Photo
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Yes. When I was young, she read to me and I loved that. I loved to sit on her lap and listen to her read.

That must have been very devastating to lose her. Was it really the day before you graduated high school?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Yes, but it was a lingering death. My mother had cervical cancer, and she had her first operation my first year in high school, before I was 14. She was in and out of the hospital for all of my high school years.

That wasn't talked about as much as it is today, was it? It was something that you almost hid.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Well, there wasn't much to do about it in those days. There was surgery, and there was very primitive radiation. There was no chemotherapy.

You also lost a sister as a young girl, didn't you?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: So young that I can't remember her. My sister would have been six years older. She was eight when she died, and I was two.

So your father really went through a lot of loss.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Yes.

Did he live to see your law career?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: In large part. My father died when I was teaching at Columbia -- was I teaching at Columbia yet? I might still have been at Rutgers. He died when my son was three, so I was still teaching at Rutgers. My father and my aunt and uncle were concerned about my choice of the law as a profession, because they knew it was very hard for women to get jobs. But I married two years before I started law school, and then it was okay, because if I couldn't get a job in the law, then I would have a husband to support me.

Tell us a little bit about Harvard Law School and the atmosphere there in the 1950s when you were there. How many other women were there in your class?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I was one of nine women in an entering class of over 500. That was a big jump from my husband's class. He was one year ahead of me, and in his class, there were five women out of some 500. There were curious aspects to the Harvard Law School. For one thing, there was no room in the dormitories -- in the law school dormitories -- for women. I had just come from Cornell University where women could not live off campus. I think that was, in part, the excuse for maintaining a ratio of four men to every woman. Some women and their parents saw, "How great! What better place to find a man than Cornell, with four men to every woman?" But it also meant that the women were ever so much smarter than the men. And as I said, the notion was the girls needed to be protected and live in dormitories, and men could live in college town. I get to the Harvard Law School and there's a dormitory complex exclusively for men. If the women want to attend that school, they have to live in town. So that was one of the many ironies.

Is it true, as we've read, that a dean once asked you how it felt to take a place at Harvard that could have been occupied by a man who would actually work after school?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The dean in those days had a dinner early in the term for all the women in the first-year class, and I think he kept it up until the number of women exceeded 20. In any case, after dinner he brought us into his living room, and each of us sat next to a distinguished professor, invited to be our escort, and he asked [us] to tell him what we were doing in the law school occupying a seat that could be held by a man. Now he did not mean that question to wound. Harvard had only recently begun to accept women, didn't accept women until 1950, 1951, and I came there in 1956, only five years after they started to admit women. There were still some doubting Thomases on the faculty, and the dean wanted the women's answers about what they were doing in law school to arm him with responses to those members of the faculty who still resisted admitting women. So he wanted women's stories so he could report those to his faculty colleagues.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Did you feel some of that resentment from the faculty in classes? Were you called on as much as the men? Were there different standards?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: For the most part, my professors treated the women in the class fairly. There was no such thing as "Ladies' Day" in any of my classes. "Ladies' Day" was notorious in law schools. It was the day when only women were called on, and the rest of the year they were ignored. I did not have that experience, but I did have this experience: The nine of us were divided into four sections, so that meant most of us were in a room with just one other woman. If we were called on, we worried that if we failed, if we didn't give the right answer, we would be failing not just for ourselves, but for all women. It is somewhat similar to people saying, when a car takes a wrong turn, "What would you expect? It's a woman driver." So we were on our toes, we were always well prepared. Years later, when women were beginning to come to law school in numbers in the 1970s, I was then teaching at Columbia, and one of my colleagues said that he really longed for the good old days when there were few women in the class, because he said if things were going slowly and you needed a crisp right answer, you called on the woman. She was always prepared. She would give you the right answer and then the class could move along. "But nowadays," he said, "there's no difference; the women are as unprepared as the men."

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

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