A young woman is accepted into Harvard Law School in 1956, one of a mere nine women in a class of more than 500. Early on, she crosses paths with Erwin Griswold, the dean of the law school and an eminent member of the legal establishment. Griswold is notorious for challenging Harvard's female law students with a question: How could they take a spot that could have gone to a man?
In this case, the young woman is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her response? "Oh, I mumbled something about my husband being in the second-year class and that it was important for a wife to understand her husband's work," says Ginsburg, with a laugh.
Today, Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg is the most powerful woman lawyer in the country. Although she is the only representative of her gender on the high court bench (since the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor), she can look out and see a deeper and wider pool of women lawyers than ever before.
But more than 50 years ago, Ginsburg was very much a minority in a sea of men. She recently talked to Legal Times about those early years and what it meant to be a legal pioneer in the 1950s and early 1960s. Back then, there was no women's movement, no "Feminine Mystique," no National Organization for Women. Few questioned traditional assumptions about a woman's role. Being a wife, a mother, and a lawyer wasn't a sign of social reform so much as it was a novelty -- or even a threat to the men who ran the world of law.
KITCHEN OR CAREER?
A half-century ago, the world bluntly discouraged women with ambitions beyond the domestic. A 1950 program at Harvard Law School, the year that women were first admitted, was entitled "Women's Education: Kitchen or Career." One of the speakers was Dr. Marynia Farnham, co-author (along with a man) of a book called "Modern Woman: The Lost Sex." The book is long out of print (with just six used copies for sale on Amazon), but it engendered a lot of discussion in its day. Modern Woman argued that the basis for healthy womanhood was staying home, bearing children, and not getting too much education.
Yet choosing between kitchen and career didn't seem to be too difficult for Ginsburg. Married to Martin (today a well-known tax law professor at Georgetown and of counsel in the Washington, D.C., office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson) and new mother of Jane (today an intellectual property law professor at Columbia), she was still eager to attend Harvard, which she quickly found to be both intimidating and exciting.
Her very first class, she says, included journalist Anthony Lewis, who was studying at Harvard for one year on a Nieman fellowship. "On the first day, he gave a response that was so brilliant that I said, 'If they're all like that, I'll never make it,'" Ginsburg recalls. And she pauses and adds, "Then I said, 'He is going to be my model. I'm going to speak in class.'"
It's that pause, the eyeing of the barrier, and then the forging onward that might be the character trait that carried Ginsburg past all the petty injustices and the greater rebuffs that stopped many other women. In conversation, she seems to have no bitterness about what could have -- and did sometimes -- hold her back. She recently told an audience at an Atlanta synagogue that if she had been able to get a job in a corporate law firm when she finished law school, she would be a retired partner today, not a Supreme Court justice. In Ginsburg's experience, adversity can offer some surprising advantages.
'THE WAY IT WAS'
In fact, she admits that she didn't really recognize as social, much less legal, injustices some of the small indignities that female law students at Harvard had to face. The bathrooms, for instance. Ginsburg says she was reminded of the lack of potty equity by a book that came out a few years ago called Pinstripes & Pearls: "The Women of the Harvard Law Class of '64 Who Forged an Old-Girl Network and Paved the Way for Future Generations," written by Judith Richards Hope.
|In her interview with Legal Times, Ruth Bader Ginsburg talked about more than just her early experiences in the law.|
On applying for financial assistance:
"To give you an idea of the way things were, I had applied to law school before I got married and was admitted with a general scholarship. Two years later, when I reapplied [as a married woman], the admissions office said, 'Send us your father-in-law's financial statement.' Years later, I wondered if it would have been right to ask a man the same question. But my father-in-law was more than happy to take care of my tuition."
On dealing with Harvard Law School:
"I asked them, would I get a Harvard degree if I finished my last year at Columbia [Law School]? Their answer was absolutely no. We would have stayed the extra year [in Cambridge] if Marty had been well, but we didn't know, and so he got a good job in New York and was the 17th person hired by Weil, Gotshal."
Later, Harvard wanted to offer her an honorary law degree: "But it was on one condition: You must surrender your Columbia degree. My answer was that there was nothing that Harvard could offer me that would lead me to part with my Columbia degree."
Even later, Harvard offered to give her the honorary degree with no strings attached: "But I've gotten more mileage out of not getting the Harvard degree! Which has embarrassed them."
On taking an undergraduate class with Vladimir Nabokov at Cornell:
"He was an incredible character. I thought many times that he changed the way I read and the way I write. I loved his class; I can still hear the things he said. When I read Lolita, I could just imagine how he said those syllables."
She remembers his advice on good writing: "'Have the reader ready for what you're going to say.' He gave an example of why he liked the English language. He said, think of French (which was his first language): If you say 'white horse' in French, it's 'cheval blanc.' And you immediately hear 'horse' and you're thinking 'brown.' But in English it's 'white horse,' so you don't see a brown horse and have to displace it. He was big on the written word and on making word pictures."
She thinks about Nabokov when she writes today: "I do fuss over my opinions, and I hope I never stop."
On attending Dean Erwin Griswold's Harvard salon:
"There were nine women in my class. And he invited those women to his home for dinner, and each of us had an escort, a distinguished member of the faculty. Mine was [constitutional law scholar] Herbert Wechsler, who looked more like God than any man I ever saw. He was my escort and a chain-smoker, and I smoked in those days. When we had that salon, each of us in turn were called on. And I forgot that the ashtray was on my lap. I stood up, and there were the butts [on the floor]. It was one of those times in my life when I wished I had a button and could drop through the floor."
On developing cancer in 1999:
"There is nothing that carried me through the year that I had cancer as [much as] being on this Court, and saying to myself, 'You have a sitting coming up; don't let this occupy your time. You have something to do.'"
"She mentions something that almost sounds like a trivial thing," Ginsburg notes. "I never paid attention to it, and yet of course I experienced it every day. I thought it was part of the territory." Harvard law students took classes in Langdell Hall and Austin Hall, but only Austin had bathrooms for women. "We just accepted that that was the way it was," Ginsburg says. And yet, "when you're taking an exam and you're under time pressure, that's not so easy."
Virginia Davis-Nordin was a classmate of Ginsburg's who also remembers, mixed in with the competitiveness among all students, the particular suspicion that women faced. On her first day at Harvard, she walked into a class held in a big amphitheater-shaped room and sat down next to another student. She turned to him and said hello.
"I'm married," he responded.
The widespread assumption was that "the only reason you came to Harvard Law School was to get a Harvard Law School husband," says Davis-Nordin, who is an associate professor of educational policy studies and evaluation at the University of Kentucky.
"It would have been a lot less stress to become a secretary," she adds with a laugh.
It's important to remember that women then had "no sense that this was unfair," says Nina Appel, a classmate of Ginsburg's at Columbia Law School (where Ginsburg completed her degree) and today dean emerita at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. "We didn't know there was anything wrong with the system."
In fact, Appel says, when one Columbia law professor announced that he had never called on a woman in his entire career and that he never would, the female students weren't outraged. "The reaction among us was relief," Appel says. "We came from a different time."
In Ginsburg's case, her reaction to the begrudging law school welcome might also have been tempered by distractions at home. Her daughter had been born in 1955, the year before she enrolled at Harvard. "I think that's what made me such a good law student," Ginsburg says. "I wasn't overwhelmed by it -- at 4 every afternoon was children's hour, when I came home and played with Jane until her bedtime. That's when I learned to work all night."
And then there was her husband's cancer. Martin Ginsburg was diagnosed with a virulent form of testicular cancer in his third year at Harvard Law. "At the time, there were no known survivors," his wife says flatly.
But even with the beyond-daunting task of dealing with a young daughter, a sick husband, and her own law school classes, Ginsburg says: "That's one of the reasons I have such fond memories of law school. Our classmates rallied around us and kept us going. We got some good person in each [third-year] class to put a carbon paper in their notes and give me a set of notes" to pass along to her husband so that he could continue his studies.
"We survived that year," Ginsburg says, and learned that "nothing could happen that we couldn't cope with."
After Martin Ginsburg graduated from Harvard, he was hired by Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York, and the whole family moved south. Ruth Bader Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School for her final year of study -- only to find that the world after law school provided its own set of complications. Looking for her first job, she naturally applied to the New York firm where she had done a summer associate stint: Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
Not that the earlier hiring process had been all that welcoming. She remembers being interviewed for the summer job by name partner Lloyd Garrison himself.
"He barely asked me three questions and then said he wanted to invite me to be a summer associate," she remembers. "I realized what was happening." The firm had apparently decided that it needed a woman in its summer intern ranks. "And I had the highest grades of the women who signed up, so why waste time?"
A summer associate was one thing; a real job was another. Paul, Weiss did not hire Ginsburg after she graduated from Columbia in 1959. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, law firms were free to put out sign-up sheets for job interviews that read "men only." Instead, Ginsburg took a job teaching at Rutgers School of Law.
'HOOKED ON WORKING'
One thing that made a difference in her life was the help of her husband's parents, who not only supported her through law school but also rallied round to care for Jane. "Whenever things didn't work out, his mother always took over, and she never made me feel that I had to check in with her," Ginsburg says. "She never made me feel like I was obliged to her in any way."
Martin Ginsburg, says his wife, has always been "wonderfully supportive." When he had survived five years after his cancer diagnosis, the doctors did a second-look surgery and concluded he was fine, and Ginsburg realized that she didn't need to work out of economic necessity. She could have become a full-time homemaker. "But I was so hooked on working!" she says.
Because of the massive radiation doses that Martin Ginsburg had received during his cancer treatments, doctors told the couple that they probably wouldn't be able to have a second child. Although Jane had always wanted a younger sister or brother, says Ruth Bader Ginsburg, "we finally sold her on how nice it was being an only child."
Then Ginsburg discovered she was pregnant. Working on a year-to-year contract at Rutgers, she had a "well-founded fear" that she would be fired. So for the last several weeks of the spring semester of 1965, she remembers, she hid her pregnancy by wearing "my mother-in-law's clothes, which were a size larger, and I got my contract for next year."
Her son, James, was born in early September 1965. (Today James is the founder and president of Cedille Records, an independent classical music label in Chicago.) At the time, Martin headed the tax department at Weil, Gotshal. Nonetheless, he began taking on more responsibility at home. Both Ginsburgs felt that it was important to have dinner with the children every night. Martin Ginsburg encouraged associates in the tax practice to go home for dinner as well, Ruth Bader Ginsburg says approvingly. "It's the partner who sets the tone and the associates who follow suit."
As for her own career, she says she saw the benefits of being on a law school faculty -- first at Rutgers and then at Columbia -- when she started bringing lawsuits to expand women's rights in the 1970s with the American Civil Liberties Union and NOW. "If I had been at a law firm, I would not have had the flexibility that I did."
In other words, it's back to a certain theme for Ruth Bader Ginsburg: "The lesson is that you never know in life whether something is going to work out to your advantage, even if it seems to be a terrible impediment."
Like that pesky Dean Griswold. Much later, Ginsburg says, Griswold explained to her why he asked women to justify what they were doing at Harvard Law. "He would use their answer to persuade colleagues that they were going to use their law degrees and that it was worthwhile," she says. "That was the way he viewed it: He was convinced, but others weren't."
It's a useful rationalization, perhaps. But maybe it's not too far from the ludicrous idea of someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg going through Harvard solely to be a better helpmate and to understand her husband's work. "To this day, my husband says I don't understand federal income tax," she says, with one more laugh.
Balancing Act, by Legal Times Special Reports Editor Debra Bruno, is a monthly column that explores the lives of women in the law.