Ailing Ginsburg looks back on HLS, early career


Justice Ruth Bader Ginburg

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was greeted with a standing ovation when she arrived at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study last Thursday. Her appearance was the featured event at Radcliffe’s 2009 Gender and the Law Conference, held March 12-13. The conference brought together legal academics, judges, and practitioners, as well as those from outside of the legal community, for an examination of the intersection of gender and legal regulations.

Justice Ginsburg joined Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Linda Greenhouse, First Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Sandra Lynch, and U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Gertner for a conversation about the evolution of women’s interaction with the law over the past four decades. Much of the discussion focused on the contributions of Justice Ginsburg herself, who was a vigorous advocate for women’s rights before being nominated to the bench. After co-founding the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in 1972, Justice Ginsburg went on to argue five cases before the Supreme Court, including the landmark case of Reed v. Reed that was the first to strike down a law because of sex-based discrimination.

Greenhouse began by asking Justice Ginsburg about her experience at HLS, which she attended in 1956, shortly after women were first admitted to the school in 1953. She described the law school as unfriendly to the small group of women in its first-year class, many of whom dropped out or transferred by the end of the year. Justice Ginsburg herself transferred to Columbia for her final year of law school after her husband received a job offer in New York. She recalled asking Dean Erwin Griswold if she could still receive a degree from HLS, and him refusing the request. She told the audience that she has since turned down several offers from Dean Kagan to receive an HLS degree, noting that the lack of a Harvard degree hadn’t held her back in life.

Judges Lynch and Gertner had similar stories of the unwelcoming atmosphere for women during their time at BU and Yale, respectively. But both noted that Justice Ginsburg’s work had been an inspiration during that time. Justice Ginsburg shared a few stories with the audience about the strategies she employed when litigating sex discrimination suits. She said she was very careful to choose only the most obvious and indefensible cases of sex discrimination, often cases involving discrimination against men, so as to always avoid the possibility of a potentially devastating ruling against the women’s rights movement.

When asked by Greenhouse what the most pressing work remaining for women is, Justice Ginsburg pointed to increasing access to abortion, while Chief Judge Lynch highlighted the need guard against reversal of the progress from prior decades.

Greenhouse noted her surprise at Justice Ginsburg’s attendance at President Obama’s State of the Union Speech on February 24th, just weeks after surgery for pancreatic cancer on February 5th. After the President’s speech, Justice Ginsburg explained to a reporter that she wanted the country to see that there was a woman on the Supreme Court. She will begin chemotherapy in late March.

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