On Tuesday, January 30th, the same night as the State of the Union, something much more exciting was happening in Providence. Supreme Court Justice and feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsberg visited Providence’s Temple Beth-El, which drew a crowd of over 1,000 people, including me and my grandma. So, I got to spend some time with two Jewish queens. And as one might imagine, it was pretty great.
Ginsburg sat in conversation with her friend and Rhode Island native Bruce Selya, a Senior Judge on the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals. Selya joked that he had planned to invite Ginsburg to the temple long ago, but hadn’t after Ginsburg told him one thing she noticed after becoming a Supreme Court Justice was that she was suddenly flooded with invitations to synagogues.
She is the longest-serving Jewish member of the court, and she spoke briefly about the fear she felt as a Jew growing up during World War II and how she, perhaps not coincidentally, ended up in a dorm of only other Jewish people when she attended Cornell University. At Cornell, Ginsburg took inspiration from two professors in particular. One was a professor of constitutional law, and the other was Vladimir Nabokov. Yes, that Nabokov. “[He] changed the way I read and the way I write,” Ginsburg said.
The professional world was not exactly welcoming to women at the time, and becoming a lawyer required a persistence and determination that Ginsburg has become known for. One of only nine women in a class of around 500 students at Harvard Law School, Ginsburg consistently had to push back against being dismissed or written-off because of her gender. “If you could get your foot in the door, you could usually perform just as well, if not better, than men,” she stated. It was just getting that foot in the door that was the hard part, and the fact that Ginsburg had a daughter while she was looking for jobs did not make things any easier. And even once she did get a job, the pay gap persisted. Employers justified higher salaries for men by saying, Oh, Ruth, that man has a wife and two children to support.
Ginsburg at Harvard Law School.
Over the course of her career, Ginsburg has continuously advocated for women’s rights, and she detailed some of the hallmarks of this ongoing battle. While at Columbia, she led the fight on the behalf of maids who were being laid off while none of the male janitors were. She remembered the press conference for the case – the guests included some of the most influential female voices of the time, including Gloria Steinem Susan Sontag, and Bella Abzug. Ginsburg has called for, among many things, more gender-inclusive juries and, alongside the ACLU, the elimination of gender-based classifications in the workplace, calling attention to the “unconscious bias” that often-male employers have when conducting interviews.
Selya brought up the comparison of Ginsburg’s push for women’s rights to Thurgood Marshall’s fight for racial equality, to which Ginsburg responded, “My life was never in danger…[Marshall] did not know whether he’d be alive or he’d end up dead.” However, Ginsburg acknowledged that she has tried to utilize tactics employed by Marshall to present sympathetic facts and steadily lead the court where he wanted it to go.
On her relationship with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Ginsburg said, “Sandra was like a big sister to me.” In an especially poignant moment, Ginsburg recalled that when she was battling colon cancer in 1999, O’Connor told her to schedule her chemotherapy appointments on Friday so she would be able to work by Monday. For health reasons, Ginsburg began wearing gloves, but, she said, “I liked them so much I didn’t stop.”
Ginsburg also spoke about another of her famous friendships, which was that between her and highly conservative former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Ginsburg knows this may have come across as an odd pairing, but she spoke with sincere admiration for her former colleague. With her incredible dry humor, she said, “I disagreed with much of what he said, but was captivated by the way he said it.” Sometimes Scalia would whisper such funny things to her, she would have to pinch herself to not burst out laughing. They would criticize each other’s opinions, and they shared a deep love of opera. There is even an opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, about Ginsburg and Scalia’s dueling opinions. In it, Scalia is locked in a room for “excessive dissenting,” and Ginsburg enters through a glass ceiling.
Illustration for the opera Scalia/Ginsburg.
And yet, the two of them do share something more than their passion for opera. “We are one in our reverence for this fundamental government institution.” She lamented the lack of respect for the current judicial system, and expressed hope that the regard she holds for it can be regained. In the midst of a government that seems increasingly hopeless and ineffective, it was clear that much of the audience saw her as a beacon of optimism and faith in the broken system.
She is a woman in one of the highest positions of legal authority, and she is a woman who worked ceaselessly for every opportunity she got to arrive there. She is 84 and so small I genuinely worry a gust of wind could blow her away, but her voice never wavers.