Ginsburg Reflects on Strides for Women’s Rights

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during a talk with Georgetown Law School students in Washington on July 2, 2019. (Megan Mineiro/CNS)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg commended her most junior colleague Justice Brett Kavanaugh for staffing all women clerks – tipping the scales for the first time in history with more women clerking at the U.S. Supreme Court than men – in a talk Tuesday night at Georgetown Law School. 

The 86-year-old justice’s appearance before a captivated audience came just days after the Supreme Court concluded its term. Joined by two former clerks who worked under the justice as young professionals balancing legal careers and toddlers at home, Ginsburg reflected on advances in gender equality in the course of her career. 

The recent term required the justices to review many prior holdings by the high court – wading into gerrymandering, religious freedom and the death penalty among other polarizing issues.

Ginsburg said that the court does weigh public perspective when determining how to adhere to precedent.

“No matter where we are on the political spectrum the one thing that each of us feels deeply is that you want to leave that institution in as good a state as you found it,” Ginsberg said. “We do not want to do anything to tarnish the court’s reputation because it is unique in the world.”

Ginsburg is often credited for dismantling decades of gender-based discrimination in the years she headed the Women’s Right Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, but Tuesday she did not weigh in on recent legislation out of states such as Alabama and Georgia that the ACLU has warned are unprecedented roll backs on decades of progress for women’s reproductive rights.

Instead, the conversation was geared toward the challenges women continue to face in the workplace. 

Reflecting back on the barriers women sought to overcome in the 1970s during her time at the ACLU, Ginsburg said there was nothing subtle about what women could and could not do.

“Almost all of those explicit barriers are gone,” Ginsberg said. “What remains is what has often been called unconscious bias.”

Her former law clerks, Dori Bernstein, now with the Georgetown Law Supreme Court Institute, and attorney Ruthanne Deutsch of Deutsch Hunt, thanked the justice for providing them flexibility to reach their professional goals. 

“There was a point in your pregnancy where you just had to be flat on your back for many weeks,” Ginsburg said to Bernstein.

At the time, Bernstein said, the justice would call her periodically to tell the clerk in the final trimester of her pregnancy about the “goings on in the chambers.”

When asked to share her favorite opinion by a fellow justice, Ginsburg credited Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for authoring the court’s decision in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan.

“I brought it home, showed it to Marty. He read Justice O’Connor’s opinion and he said ‘Ruth, did you write this?’” Ginsburg said. 

The case, involving a publicly funded women’s nursing school that denied admission to a male applicant, laid the foundation for equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment for individuals to gain entrance to educational institutions regardless of gender.

The justice had many stories to share about her marriage to Marty Ginsburg, who taught as a professor at Georgetown Law School. 

They met under the best circumstances at Cornell University, Ginsburg said, when they both were dating students that attended different schools.

“Our brains thought, ‘well, it’s a long cold winter,’” Ginsburg said laughing, to the delight of the crowd. 

Describing Marty as her “biggest booster,” Ginsburg said her husband broke with tradition when he stepped up housekeeping and child-caring duties in the 1960s just as the justice’s fight for gender equality was gaining traction. 

“He was very comfortable with who he was and he never regarded me as any kind of a threat,” Ginsberg said. “On the contrary, Marty thought that I must be really special if he wanted to spend his life with me.”

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