A Conversation with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Article excerpt

Professor Gillian Metzger: Katherine, thank you for that wonderful overview of all that the Justice has achieved and the history of Columbia Law School. And I want to apologize for those to whom I am showing my back, but this will allow us to have more of a conversation with the Justice.

Justice, thank you so much for being with us today. It is a real privilege for us to get to talk to you this way, and we know for the entire audience. You have had--as you have now heard (LAUGHS)--an amazing and just tremendously varied career, spanning so many different roles of academic, public interest advocate, judge, now Justice. We can't possibly cover all of this in the time we have this morning, but what we are hoping to do is talk a little bit about each of these roles, how each step you took influenced the rest, and then we will be throwing it open after our conversation for questions from the audience.

We thought we'd begin at the beginning or reasonably close to it.

You grew up in Brooklyn and you attended Cornell on a full scholarship, graduated in 1954. And then you went to law school, and you spent your first two years at Harvard where you were one of nine women in a class of more than five hundred. Then came to Columbia where you were one of twelve women--you gained three female cohorts--but out of a class I believe of more than two hundred and eighty. So one first question is what made you decide to go to law school and what was it like being at law school in a group of so few women?

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Gillian, may I just make two footnotes to the splendid introduction that was given for me? I was not the first woman on the Columbia Law faculty. I was the first tenured woman, but Harriet Rabb was here, she came the year before I did, and she started up an employment discrimination clinic with George Cooper. That was the clinic that took on AT&T, The New York Times, and the major Wall Street law firms, and many more. (APPLAUSE) The second footnote is a question for you. I do work terribly hard, you know that, but don't you think that David Souter was number one in how many hours of the day he worked? (LAUGHS)

Metzger: I have to say my recollection is that everybody worked ridiculous hours at the Court (LAUGHS), but yes.

Ginsburg: But now let me turn to your question. You asked how I became interested in the law. One big turn-on for me was that I was going to college at a time that was not very good for the United States. It was the 50s, the heyday of Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, who saw a communist in every corner. I was working for a professor of constitutional law, Robert Cushman, as a research assistant. He wanted me to understand how far we were straying from our most fundamental values. And in the course of my work with him, I saw that there were lawyers, brave lawyers, standing up for the people who were called before the Senate Internal Security Committee, the House Un-American Activities Committee. So I thought, well, maybe that's what I would like to do. The other powerful influence was my dear spouse. We had decided that we would do together whatever it was. Medical school dropped out early on, thank goodness, because the chemistry labs interfered with golf practice. (LAUGHS) So then it came down to business school and law school. Well, Harvard, the university Marry set his sights on, made that decision easy for us. Women were not admitted to the business school until the 60s. The law school just started admitting women in 1950, '50-'51 was the first year. I think my father was rather concerned about my interest in becoming a lawyer because, realistically, there wasn't much of a demand for women lawyers. (LAUGHS) But then, when I got married, then it was fine because, after all, I would have a man to support me. (LAUGHS) So did I leave out any part of your question? (LAUGHS)

Professor Abbe Gluck: No, that was perfect. So Justice, you graduated from Columbia in 1959, and by 1963, you were teaching in academia. …