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Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Interview: Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

August 17, 2010
Washington, D.C.

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Justice Ginsburg, may we ask what you are most proud of having accomplished so far in your career?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I was fortunate to be born at the right time and to be in the right place when the Women's Movement came alive. So many things were wrong with the way life was ordered in the '70s. In many states, women didn't serve on juries, to take just one example, and there were so many jobs that were off limits to women. People began to realize there was something wrong about that and women should be free to aspire and achieve just as men are. So I had legal education and I could use that education to help move this movement for change, for allowing women to realize their full potential, help move that along. So it was that ten years of my life that I devoted to litigating cases about -- I don't say women's rights -- I say the constitutional principle of the equal citizenship stature of men and women. I was tremendously fortunate to be able to participate in that movement for change.

Could you tell us about your reaction when President Carter first nominated you to the U.S. Court of Appeals? That was a big step in your career.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Yes.

President Carter determined that he was going to change the face of the U.S. judiciary. When he became president, there was only one woman on a Federal Court of Appeals in the entire country. Shirley Hufstedler is her name. Carter chose her to be the first ever Secretary of Education, and then there were none. Carter had only one term, but by the end of his term, he had appointed 40 women to the Federal Judiciary, 11 to Courts of Appeals, and no president ever went back to the bad old days. He set the tone, and when Reagan became president, he was determined to go down in history as the president who appointed the first woman to the Court. He did a nationwide search and came up with a brilliant choice, Sandra Day O'Connor. So I never thought about being a judge. People often ask me, "Well, did you always want to be a judge?" My answer is it just wasn't in the realm of the possible until Jimmy Carter became president and was determined to draw on the talent of all of the people, not just some of them.

After serving on the Court of Appeals, what was it like to receive the call from President Clinton when he nominated you to the Supreme Court?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I was elated. I was on cloud nine. The President called me rather late in the evening -- it was close to midnight, as I recall -- and after, I was just overwhelmed with joy. He said, "And tomorrow morning, we will have a little ceremony in the Rose Garden and we would like you to make some remarks." So that meant I had to get down from the clouds, sit at my writing table, and come up with remarks to deliver the next morning.

That didn't give you much time.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg: But it was very good. It worked out very well, because the White House handlers had no time to edit it or suggest changes and then I gave it just as I wrote it.

How did it change your life to become a Justice of the Supreme Court? Your husband had already moved with you to Washington for your previous position, hadn't he?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Yes. He had left the law practice in 1979 to be a full-time faculty member at Columbia Law School. My husband was an excellent teacher, as my daughter is. So when I got this good job in D.C., Marty transferred from Columbia to Georgetown University Law Center. He started teaching at Georgetown in 1980, and he continued on that faculty for the rest of his life.

With the confirmation of Justice Elena Kagan, an unprecedented three Supreme Court justices are now women. How might that affect the future?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: It's obvious now that women are really here and we're here to stay, just as men are. We are not "one or two at a time" curiosities. So I think this is an exhilarating change. When I was a new justice on this court, for the twelve years that I sat together with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, invariably one lawyer or another would call me Justice O'Connor. They had become accustomed to a woman on the Court, and Justice O'Connor was THE woman, so if they heard a woman's voice, well, that must be the lady justice, even though we don't look alike, we don't sound alike. But last year no one called Justice Sotomayor "Justice Ginsburg" or me "Justice Sotomayor," and I am certain that lawyers will perceive the difference among the three of us, and we will each have our individual identities. We're not quite where the Supreme Court of Canada is. The Supreme Court of Canada also has nine justices; four are women, including their chief justice. I think we will not be too far behind.

How did you first become interested in the law?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I became interested in the law somewhere between the second and third year at Cornell University. It came about because my years at Cornell, 1950 to 1954, were not very good years for our country. There was a red scare. There were people in the House and Senate who saw a communist in every closet, and it was particularly hard for people in the entertainment industry. There was a blacklist of people who would not be hired, simply because in their youth they belonged to a socialist club. I had a professor, his name was Robert Cushman, and he taught constitutional law to undergraduates. I was his research assistant, and he wanted me to be aware that our country was estranged from its most basic values. And that there were brave lawyers who were standing up and defending people before the Senate Internal Security Committee and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and reminding legislators that this nation is great because we respect every person's right to think, speak and publish freely, without Big Brother government telling them what is the right way to think. So it was the notion that lawyers could earn a living at that business, but could also help make things a little better for their community, both local -- state, national -- and world. So it was that combination of a trade plus the ability to use your learning, your talent, to help make things a little better for others.

Were there lawyers in your family?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: There were no lawyers in my family. My father came to the United States from Russia when he was 13, and apart from night school to learn English, he had no formal schooling. My mother was the sixth child to be born in her large family, and the first one born in the U.S.A. She was born four months after her parents arrived.

From where?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: From Austria. And she was a very good student; she graduated high school at age 15 and then went immediately to work so that she could help support the eldest son, who was going to Cornell University. In those families, the eldest son was the one on whom the most attention was lavished, and no one thought about sending girls to higher education.

Did she work while you were growing up?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: No, because...

I think my mother would have thrived had she worked. But when she was married, it was considered a disgrace to a man that his wife worked. It would mean that he was unable to support her. So she stopped working when she married, but she was always helpful to my father in his work. In fact, when she died -- she died when I was 17, just before I was to graduate from high school -- when she died his business went downhill, because she was a very important part of keeping it afloat.

What was his business?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: He was a manufacturer of furs.

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?

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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.

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."

A famous Justice of the Supreme Court, Felix Frankfurter, was asked to consider hiring you as one of his law clerks. You had amazing qualifications, having been on the law reviews of both Columbia and Harvard. You were recommended by a Harvard professor. Was it the dean?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: It was Al Sachs. He was still a professor then. He later became dean.

And you tied for first place in your graduating class at Columbia. What was Justice Frankfurter's reaction?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Justice Frankfurter, like his colleagues, was just not prepared to hire a woman. Now these were pre-Title VII days, so there was nothing unlawful about discriminating against women. And gentlemen of a certain age at that time felt that they would be discomfited by a woman in chambers, that they might have to watch what they say, they might have to censor their speech. It was surprising that Frankfurter had that typical -- in those days -- reaction, because he was the first justice to hire an African American as a law clerk some years before. But as I said, like many other federal judges of the time, he just wasn't prepared to hire a woman.

How did that feel to you at the time?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: It was expected. That was the way things were.

When I applied for law firm jobs, Columbia had an excellent placement office, but sign up sheets would go up and many would say, "Men only." I had, as I have sometimes explained, three strikes that put me out when it came to employment as a lawyer. One is I am Jewish, and the law firms were just beginning to stop discriminating on the basis of religion. That affected Catholics as well as Jews. They were opening up to all people without regard to religion. And some, a precious few, were ready to try a woman, but none were willing to take a chance on a mother, and my daughter was four years old when I graduated from law school. So of course I was disappointed, but it wasn't unexpected.

You have said that, in a sense, you yourself were a product of affirmative action in being hired by Columbia in the early 1960s. Were they looking to diversify their faculty?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Yes.

The Women's Movement came alive in the United States in the late '60s, and the government in those days was heavily into affirmative action. People don't remember that affirmative action became a major item during Nixon's administration, and it started in the construction trades, which were highly exclusionary. There was a good deal of nepotism, so you got a starting job as an apprentice if your father or your uncle was a member of the union. And it was Nixon's Secretary of Labor who thought that the best way to break that exclusion was to have people who have contracts with government -- and many people do -- pledge to do two things. One was to set goals and timetables. The assumption was, "Now let's assume there would be no discrimination. About how many members of a minority group might be expected?" So you sent that number as the goal, and a timetable for when you would achieve it. And this was not something that was absolute. If there was a good reason why you couldn't comply, so be it. But it was necessary for people who held government contracts at least to make an effort. And most colleges and universities had government money of some sort. There was a very active office for civil rights in the then Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the head of that office was a man named Stan Pottinger. He was visiting colleges and universities all over America to encourage them to fulfill their affirmative action obligations, and also to remind them that if they didn't, there was a possibility that their contracts might be suspended or even terminated. So in the year 1972, Columbia named two people to the faculty. One was an African American man, and one was a woman, the first ever hired in a tenured post.

And that was you.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Yes. Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I still go to Columbia regularly. I have a very close tie to Columbia because my daughter is on the Columbia Law School faculty, and a former law clerk of mine is the dean. David Schizer is the Dean of the Columbia Law School. His mother was a classmate of mine at Columbia. So I have strong connections to the Columbia Law School.

He was a law clerk of yours?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Yes. David Schizer, who is now the Dean of Columbia Law School. It was my second year on the Supreme Court, so it would have been 1994 to '95. He was my very excellent law clerk.

I can imagine. When you became the first tenured woman on the faculty of Columbia Law School, did you feel some resentment from fellow faculty members, or by then was it more accepted?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I had a great deal of support from my faculty colleagues. None of them were resentful. Most of them were so secure about themselves and the excellence of the Columbia faculty, their idea was that if Columbia decided to engage me to be a tenured professor then I must be really good. And even if I were doing things that they didn't, that they would disagree with, they were backing me up. One example: I was named the law school's representative on the university senate. Women who were teaching in the university had a suspicion that they were not getting equal pay, so the start to finding out if that suspicion was right was finding out just what salaries the university was paying. And the administration's answer was, "That's secret information. All kinds of jealousies would result if we published them." And of course, you couldn't find out if Columbia was meeting its equal pay obligations without that information, which we eventually got and the suspicions proved right.

That you were paid less than your male colleagues.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I wasn't, because coming on in 1972 they made certain that I would be treated as well as my male peers. But women who had worked at the university for years, who came on in the days when it was accepted to pay women less...

Were these women faculty members?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Faculty or top administrators.

The hardest thing for my colleagues to accept was when we -- and by we, I mean the ACLU women's rights project, which I helped to found -- challenged the TIAA CREF program, and the retirement program used by most colleges and universities, because they rigidly separated the policy beneficiaries by sex. So they used mortality tables for men, for women. And the women would get less when they retired than a man with equivalent salary and time in service. The reason was that on average it's fair, because women on average live longer than men. And my view was, "Yes, that's certainly true on average, but there are some men who live long and some women who die early." And the whole notion is that you don't lump together women simply because they are women, and that TIAA CREF should merge their mortality tables. Well, the immediate response was, "Horrors! We just couldn't do that. Then all the men would desert the plan and get private insurance." Well, TIAA CREF was such a good deal that when they did finally merge the tables, nobody left. But that was the most worrisome thing to my faculty colleagues. Even so, they supported a class action that was brought -- with 100 named plaintiffs -- on behalf of women teachers and administrators at Columbia, charging that maintaining separate mortality tables essentially denied women equal pay, and was in violation of our foremost anti-discrimination law, Title VII.

In 1975 you argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of a man's right to survivor benefits. In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, you argued that a man, a widower, deserved what a widow would normally get. Can you talk about the importance of that case?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Steven Wiesenfeld had a very happy marriage. He was trying to start up a computer business at home. His wife was the dominant breadwinner, she was a teacher. She had a healthy pregnancy, she was teaching even into her ninth month. She went to the hospital to give birth, and the doctor came out and told Steven Wiesenfeld, "You have a healthy baby boy, but your wife died of an embolism." So Steven vowed that he would not go back to work, that he would not work full time, until Jason, the baby, was in school full time. And he asked the Social Security -- he called at the local office -- and said that he wanted what was called "child in care" benefits. These were benefits for a sole surviving parent to take care of a child under the age of -- I don't remember whether it was 12 or 16. In any case, the person at the Social Security office told Steven, "These are mothers' benefits. They are not available to fathers." And Steven asked why. He said, "Social Security taxes were deducted from Paula's check, her wages, just as they would be from a man." So essentially her contribution, her Social Security taxes, did not buy for her family the same protection that a man's tax payments would secure for his family. So although the person who was feeling the loss of benefits was male, it started with discrimination against the woman as wage earner. So the woman was discriminated against as wage earner, the male as parent, and that conformed to what was the basic separation that the man was the breadwinner, the woman was responsible for care of the home and children. So again, we never challenged how life was for most people. We said stereotypes -- while there are stereotypes that are true in general -- but there were many people who don't fit the mold. And the whole object in the 1970s -- through first public education, then attempt to change the laws by going to the state legislatures and Congress, and finally the courts were there as a last resort.

The idea I think was best expressed in a song that Ms. Magazine published, and I think Marlo Thomas was involved. The song is "Free to Be You and Me," and that was the idea. That the male or female, you should be free to follow your star, to develop your talent, and you shouldn't be held back by artificial barriers.

You've said that some laws that seemed on the surface to be helping women were actually discriminatory, because they implied that women needed more help than men.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: That women need to be protected.

That was true, our legislation said women couldn't work more than eight hours a day, 40 hours a week. And that might have been fine in the days of sweatshops, when some employers required women to work six days a week, 12 hours a day. But over the years, especially with unions protecting workers, the workday shrunk from 12 hours to ten hours to eight. And then if an employer wanted more hours, the employer would have to pay time-and-a-half or double time for those additional hours. So the hours laws that started out to protect women from sweatshop conditions ended up protecting men's jobs from women's competition. If an employer has two choices, a woman who cannot be engaged to work overtime and a man who is willing to do that, he would pick the man. So the protections, over time, came to be not protections but barriers for women. To take another simple example, women couldn't be engaged to work at night, no night work. Well if a woman is a waitress, the most lucrative tips, at banquets and such, come in the evening, not at lunchtime. So women came to realize that these old-style protections were not genuine protections for women, but they helped to keep things the way they were, where there was this sharp divide between what women do and what men do, and the notion was to break down those stereotypes. So if a man wants to go to a nursing school, then that's okay, that's fine. And if a woman wants to be an engineer, a doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, that's fine too. And now it's not at all extraordinary for a woman to be any of those things.

What does the American Dream mean to you, Justice Ginsburg?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: How can I describe the American Dream? Maybe it's captured by the first ride I took on a New York subway, after returning from several months in Sweden, where everybody looked the same, and here I was on the subway, and the amazing diversity of the people of the United States. You know the motto is E pluribus unum -- "Of many, one" -- and that's the idea that, more than just tolerating, we can appreciate our differences and yet pull together for the long haul. So that is my idea of the American Dream, sometimes referred to as "the melting pot." That's not quite right, because we keep our individual identities, but we are all Americans, and proud to live in the land of the free.

What do you think is the next frontier in women's rights or civil rights? Where do we still need to go?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The hardest barrier to surmount for most women, I think it's no longer at the entry level of any job, no longer access to any educational facility. I think, for example, that Justice Kagan did not encounter any discrimination in admissions to college, law school, getting a job, getting a clerkship. But what is very hard for most women is what happens when children are born. Will men become equal parents, sharing the joys as well as the burdens of bringing up the next generation? But that's my dream for the world, for every child to have two loving parents who share in raising the child.

And now, I think I have to go back to work.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us.

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This page last revised on Nov 11, 2013 20:12 EDT