When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg began her legal crusade half a century ago, the law sanctioned different treatment of women and men. When she finally made it to the Supreme Court, she had already achieved a judicial revolution.
Women’s issues today can often seem like they’ve moved far beyond the 1950s and 60s, but in many ways they’ve also remained the same. Above all, sexual harassment still seems to lie at the center of it all.
When Ginsburg was asked to comment on the #MeToo movement at the Sundance Film Festival this past weekend, her response was: “It’s about time. For so long women were silent, thinking there was nothing you could do about it, but now the law is on the side of women, or men, who encounter harassment and that’s a good thing.”
Ginsburg isn’t concerned that the #MeToo movement will inevitably provoke a backlash against women. “So far it’s been great,” she said. “When I see women appearing every place in numbers, I’m less worried about a backlash than I might have been 20 years ago.”
Ginsburg recalled incidents of sexism from her time as both a law student and teacher, describing how she handled it. “Every woman of my vintage knows what sexual harassment is, although we didn’t have a name for it,” Ginsburg explained.
She recounted one time when she went to her chemistry instructor at Cornell for help. The instructor provided her with a practice exam, but it ended up being identical to the real test. “I knew exactly what he wanted in return,” she said. She immediately stormed into his office and said, “‘How dare you? How dare you do this?’ And that was the end of that.”
Ginsburg’s crusade for equality
As a young law professor, Ginsburg didn’t hesitate to push back against the blatant sexism she endured at work. When she took a position at Rutgers Law School and discovered how much of a salary cut it would involve, she asked how much a male colleague who had been out of law school the same amount of time was being paid. The dean replied, “Ruth, he has a wife and two children to support. You have a husband with a good paying job in New York.”
That exchange took place the same year the Equal Pay Act passed and “that was the answer I got,” Ginsburg said. The women at Rutgers organized to file an Equal Pay Act suit, and eventually the university settled.
Ginsburg also shared the story of Columbia Law School laying off 25 women in the maintenance department, but sparing all the men. She took it up with the university’s vice president for Business, informing him that the university was in violation of Title VII. He responded, “Professor Ginsburg, Columbia has excellent Wall Street lawyers representing them and would you like a cup of tea?”
Shortly after, an application for a temporary injunction against Columbia was filed and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sent their chief counsel to argue in favor of it. After the injunction was issued, “Columbia decided they didn’t really have to lay off anyone,” she recalls.
Ginsburg also shared some tips for women who are balancing motherhood and careers.
While Ginsburg was developing the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, teaching at Columbia, and litigating cases across the U.S. and before the Supreme Court, she was also a mother to two children. She recalled how she received regular calls from her son’s school. “The child was what his teachers called ‘hyperactive’ and I called ‘lively.'”
When the schooled called one day after Ginsburg had stayed up all night writing a brief, she answered the phone and said, “This child has two parents. Please alternate calls. It’s his father’s turn.” Ginsburg laughed to remember her husband leaving his own job to head down to the school.
At age 84, Ginsburg remains healthy, strong, active, and quick-witted. She has become something of a popular culture icon, and admits that she loved Kate McKinnon’s portrayal of her on Saturday Night Live. “I would like to say, ‘Ginsburn’ sometimes to my colleagues.” When asked how long she’ll remain on the bench, she didn’t hesitate: “as long as I can do the job full steam, I will be here.”