Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is tiny and rail thin, but her voice is deep and commanding, and her determination and brilliance have utterly transformed our lives. In the seventies, Ginsburg led the legal movement to overturn laws that are sexually discriminatory, breaking down the notion of a prescribed "woman's place" in society. Ginsburg continues to shape our future by ruling on everything from executions to, well, presidential elections. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.
Lynn Sherr: You said in 1988 before you became a justice, "The Supreme Court needed basic education before it was equipped to turn away from the precedents in place." Your strategy [as a lawyer before the Court] seems to have been to go very slowly, to give the Supreme Court that education. I assume this was a conscious decision on your part.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: In the sixties we were starting from a different place than those who were arguing against racial discrimination in the courts, because most of the men in the courts didn't associate discrimination with the way women were treated. They thought that they were good husbands and good fathers. They thought women had the best of all possible worlds: They could work if they wanted; they could stay home. They could avoid jury duty if they wanted, or they could serve. We were educating the men to realize there was something wrong with that world. Justice Brennan eventually wrote in a Supreme Court opinion that there was something about the pedestal that resembled a cage. Wherever you are, whatever your audience is, you want to play to that audience and not turn it against you. The way to do this was to make the judges understand that, yes, even their own daughters could be disadvantaged by the way things were.
LS: How did you feel when Sandra Day O'Connor was nominated for the Supreme Court? You were qualified; you'd been mentioned as a nominee.
RBG: I thought it was terrific for the country. There was no chance that I was going to be nominated by President Reagan. I remember being in the car, turning on the radio, hearing the news about her, and saying, "Isn't this grand?" She has been very much like a big sister to me. Sandra was the first person to call me when I was in the hospital [for colon cancer]. She had breast cancer years back, so she was also able to prepare me for what to expect. I think we have an enormous affection and respect for each other, even though on some very important issues we are on opposite sides.
LS: Talk to us a little bit about the difference you think it makes to have women sitting on any bench, and particularly on the Supreme Court.
RBG: It says to the world we're not one-at-a-time curiosities; we are here to stay. The National Association of Women Judges, with great foresight it turns out, had a little celebration at the Court when I took my seat. They presented T-shirts to Sandra and to me. Hers read I'm Sandra, not Ruth and mine was I'm Ruth, not Sandra. I went through the entire last term, which was my seventh year on the Court, with no one calling me Justice O'Connor. It took six years! But to me that was a sign we've really made it, that they know there are two women.