Ginsburg tells conference attendees:
"I wanted the country to see there is a woman on the Supreme Court."
When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’56-’58 was a student at HLS, she was one of nine women in a class of more than 500. As the featured speaker at “Gender and the Law: Unintended Consequences, Unsettled Questions,” a conference at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study co-sponsored by HLS, Ginsburg recalled her HLS years.
Ginsburg famously never received an HLS degree, refusing that option after transferring to Columbia her third year to be with her husband, Martin Ginsburg ’58. But, she added, in recent years HLS has repeatedly offered to bestow that honor upon her.
An overflow crowd gathered for the two-day conference. In the opening panel, Ginsburg—the second woman to serve on the nation’s high court—was joined by Linda Greenhouse, former legal reporter for The New York Times; Judge Nancy Gertner of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts; and Chief Judge Sandra Lynch of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, who all recalled early fights for gender equality.
Later panel discussions covered topics ranging from the rights of domestic workers in Egypt to the growth of same-sex public schools in the U.S. Professor Janet Halley led a panel that addressed issues related to economic rights.
Among many experiences in her storied career, Ginsburg was chief litigator for the ACLU women’s rights project, and she argued a number of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. At that time, “the Supreme Court never saw a gender classification it didn’t like,” she said.
In the 1970s, as the fight for women’s rights gathered momentum, reformers needed to find a legal strategy to challenge such injustices as public school teachers being ousted from their jobs when their pregnancies became apparent. “The obvious choice was the Equal Protection Clause,” Ginsburg said. But, when the 14th Amendment was passed in 1868, women “weren’t part of the political community at all” and strict constructionists argued that those protections should not apply to women. “It was clear the framers had no idea they were changing any of that, but they planted an idea—the idea of equality,” Ginsburg said. “Our notion of the Equal Protection Clause is that it evolves over time to fit society as it exists.”
Said Greenhouse: “We are all of us in Justice Ginsburg’s debt, for her career and for being with us today, which most of us didn’t expect.” Many people had also been surprised that Ginsburg, hospitalized in early February for pancreatic cancer, was present several weeks later at Obama’s State of the Union address. Greenhouse said that Ginsburg, asked why she rallied to attend the address, replied, “I was there because I wanted the country to see there is a woman on the Supreme Court.”