RBG at Harvard Law School and current day RBG.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her Harvard Law School yearbook photo and now. Photos courtesy of the Harvard Law School yearbook and by Shannon Finney/Getty Images
Jurisprudence

“It’s Amazing to Me How Distinctly I Remember Each of These Women”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg reflects on her nine female classmates at Harvard Law School and the divergent paths their lives all took from there.

When we started this project, our goal was to talk to as many of the women in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Harvard Law School class as possible. My colleague Molly Olmstead and I spent months tracking down the ones who are still alive, and interviewing family members in depth about the women who have passed. But then Justice Ginsburg agreed to speak to us, too. And so in late January, just weeks before the court emptied and went remote, a few colleagues and I headed up the sweeping marble steps of the Supreme Court. While we waited, a pot of tea with a single cup on a saucer was placed on the table across from me. And then, a few minutes later, Justice Ginsburg sat down in front of it. This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation, focused on her time at Harvard Law School almost 65 years ago—and her memories of the nine other women in their class of 500-plus men.

Dahlia Lithwick: When we started this project, I think we thought the nine women in your class would clump together and be like a pack. I was remembering when I started at Stanford Law School, in 1992, that’s kind of how it was. But based on my conversations with your classmates, it doesn’t seem like that necessarily organically happened.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Well for me, I had no time to waste, because Jane was 14 months when I started. So my time was used very efficiently, for classes, for studying after class, then come home at 4 p.m. to take care of Jane. I didn’t have time for any socializing, except on weekends. So the only person among the women, for a time, that I was close to was Jinnie Davis. And that continued after law school. Read about Jinnie’s life, and her memories of Justice Ginsburg.

She was in my section, and she was just a lovely person. She was a Christian Scientist. When Marty had cancer his third year, our second year, she visited him in the hospital a few times, and I was wondering how that would be for her, because I watched her once in class. She was sitting a couple of rows ahead of me and she cut her finger, she had a paper cut, and her finger was bleeding. And I wanted to go over and blot it for her, but she didn’t, she just let it …

Just bleed onto the desk?

Yeah.

And so you weren’t sure how she would be when Marty was in the hospital, because …

Well, just reacting to a hospital.

I’ve heard there was a real dividing line between the women in your class who came with children and spouses, and the women who didn’t. Was that your experience, too?

Well, in my first year, I was the only one who was married and had a child. I think Carol, I think she got married. And Alice got married at the end of her first year. So my first year, I was the only married woman in the class. And the only mother, because Rhoda [who was married] took her first year at Penn, and then she was in our second year.

Your classmate Carol describes sitting on the steps and doing crossword puzzles, and she and Flora recalled cooking dinners for the men in law school—it just seems like they were in a really different world than you were. Read Carol’s memories of Harvard Law School.

I think that’s so. [There was something] called the Radcliffe cooking contest. [One male student] and his roommates decided they’d have a competition, and they’d have a different girl come and cook for them. And at the end of the year, they’d give a prize to the winner of the Radcliffe cooking contest.

Then some of the guys at the law school decided they would take up that idea, but they would use the women in the class instead of the Radcliffe girls.

And this was fun for the women?

I don’t know.

There was, in those years, the Harvard Law Wives’ Club. So most of the women I knew were married to men mostly in Marty’s class. And I got invited to the Law Wives Association because I was a law wife. But that was to help the wives be supportive of their husbands who were engaged in this intense education at the law school.

Did you feel isolated? I mean, did you feel as though you were having a very singular experience that wasn’t really comparable to the other women in your class?

No, I did not feel any lack of companionship. I had Marty, and the people that we socialized with were mainly in his class. And then I was just so engaged all the time, with either law school, or with Jane. I had no time to be lonely. I was just constantly engaged, and it was even more intense my second year, when Marty had cancer.

One thing that was really stunning to hear during these interviews was the way the women had such different paths to Harvard. I think when we undertook this project, we envisioned a bunch of singularly driven, ambitious women who said, “I’m going to go to law school.” And as we talked to either the families or to the women themselves, it turned out that a lot of them were trailing a male law student. There wasn’t as much, I think, agency as I expected. I’m using the word trailing reluctantly, because I know you went in some measure to be with Marty. But I think I was surprised at how many of the women were following a man.

Yeah. I think an exception to that was Ellie Voss. That was such a tragedy. [Editor’s note: Eleanor Voss died in a motorized scooter accident in her last year at Harvard.] And you can imagine how a young man who was driving that motorcycle must’ve felt. I mean, he eventually came to terms with it, and he married and I hope had a happy life. But … I don’t think Ellie Voss came to Harvard because she was following a boyfriend. BJ, I don’t know—of all the women in the class, I was most impressed with her, because she had been both a model and an actuary. Read BJ’s story. A very unusual combination. Also, she dated a friend of mine in our class. He was in my study group, Herb Lobel. He went out with both BJ and with Jinnie Davis.

Can we talk about the famous Dean Erwin Griswold story, where the dean asked the women of Harvard Law School why they were there taking the place of a man? I only bring it up because Flora told us that she actually thought he was trying to be helpful to women.

He was trying, he was. There’s a book that you probably saw, it’s called Pinstripes and Pearls, by Judy Hope. And she has as an appendix on the budget, on what it was going to cost for women to come to Harvard Law School. The cost was fixing up a bathroom in Austin Hall, which, by the way, was always overheated. There was asbestos dripping from the ceiling before we knew that asbestos wasn’t good for people’s health.

Anyway, [at the dinner], each of us had an escort. [The dean] arranged for somebody on the faculty to sit next to each of the women. And my escort was a very well-known Columbia Law School professor, Herb Wechsler.

RBG in 1977.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1977. Getty Images

I’m told that the escorts, before they came to Griswold’s home for dinner, went nearby to Judge [Calvert] Magruder’s house. Because the dean didn’t serve any alcohol, they went there first. There were many good things about Dean Griswold, including his bravery in the McCarthy era—in the book he wrote about the Fifth Amendment. But he didn’t have a sense of humor, and because he had been a proponent of the admission of women, he wanted to assure the doubting Thomases on the faculty that these women were going to do something worthwhile with their law degrees. So he asked that question, “Why are you here occupying a seat that could be held by a man?,” because he wanted to be armed with stories from the women themselves, about how they plan to make use of their law degrees, and not just waste this wonderful education they would get.

He didn’t have any sense that he was making the women feel uncomfortable about this. I don’t know if Flora told you about her answer, but as I remember it, she said, “Dean Griswold, there are X number of us. … There are 500 of them. What better place to find a man?” Read Flora’s memory of the dinner at Griswold’s house.

Can you tell me a bit more about the escorts?

They were just to sit next to us at dinner, and sit next to us when we moved from the dining room to the living room. And [the dean] had the chairs arranged in a horseshoe. So, Herb Wechsler was sitting next to me. In those days I smoked, and Herb was a chain smoker. So I had the ashtray that we were sharing on my lap, and when I got up to say something all the cigarette butts went on the floor, in Griswold’s living room. Oh, it was really one of those moments, when you wish you could have a trapdoor to fall through. So I mumbled something about my husband is in the second year of class, and I think it’s important for a wife to understand her husband’s work.

If you could answer it again today in the fullness of knowledge, what would your answer be?

It wasn’t a truthful answer when I gave it.

But … I’d say I went to law school because I wanted to study law. In fact, I took the LSAT before Marty did, although he was a year ahead of me.

There was a story I heard from several of the women that … I have to say my jaw hit the floor. They described something called ladies’ day, where the women in the class had to answer all the questions, and even had to sing on the spot.

The professor notorious for ladies’ day was Barton Leach. My section, we had no ladies’ day.

I knew about [Leach] lining them up in the first row, and after ignoring them the whole semester, that one day concentrating all [the] attention [on them]. But I think my classmates were warned by the women in the class ahead, of what they could expect. This is a funny story—when I was, years later, at Columbia, Billie Jean King had just won her match with Bobby Riggs. One of the professors announced with great glee, “Tomorrow in honor of Billie Jean King, we’re going to celebrate ladies’ day.” And he had no idea what the history of ladies’ day had been.

Was it deliberate hazing? Or was it meant to be funny? Both Carol and Flora remembered it, the singing, but they both laughed about it. And then after laughing about it, Flora said, “That was so degrading.” Read Flora’s recollection of ladies’ day.

Well there were episodes like that. We had as visitors two people we’d been close to in the Army. And I brought the woman to class with me, Jill, and she, far from going to law school, she hadn’t even gone to college. So [William] McCurdy, my contracts professor, calls on her, and I stood up and said, “She’s my house guest.” And he said, “Any fool can answer that question. You answer it.” And then I got up and told him that he was rude to my guest, and I would answer the question.

Really?

Yes. And he said something about Mrs. Ginsburg being a killjoy.

Did he give you a C-plus in contracts?

No.

Maybe the best teacher I ever had, my first year in law school, was Ben Kaplan. He never, never did anything to wound or offend. He was a master of the Socratic technique, but he always used it in a positive way. So a student would give an answer; he would rephrase it as in “You mean … ”

McCurdy was a typical Harvard professor at that time and liked to make students feel uncomfortable.

One of the things that we heard from Alice Vogel’s family was that she got on Law Review, and then got a letter, “We don’t have dorms for you. It’s only the men who are arriving early who are going to get dorms, and there’s no place for you to sleep.” Read about Alice’s experience at Harvard.

The Law Review invitations went out at the end of the first year. So it wasn’t a competition, it was just strictly on the basis of grades. Alice … was getting married, or she had just gotten married. And she just turned it down, because of her husband.

The dormitory was something else. I had come from Cornell, where the girls had to live in the dorms. That was Cornell’s excuse for having a 4-to-1 ratio—four guys to every gal—because the boys could live in town, but girls had to live in the dormitory. And I get to the Harvard Law School, and they had no room for the girls in the dorm. It didn’t matter to me because I wasn’t going to be in the dorm anyway. But that, that was one of the many ironies, that the girls needed to be protected, by being sheltered inside a dorm at Cornell. But at Harvard they had to find their own place to stay.

Another version of this was something we heard about Marilyn Rose: She wanted to be in the public defenders, a group at Harvard, and it was all male, and they were not going to let her in. And so, instead of trying to get herself in, she made sure that the women who came after her could be in the public defenders’ group. Read more about Marilyn Rose’s experience at Harvard.

And I think what I’m trying to understand is—was that just a function of “that’s what you did if you couldn’t get something,” that you made sure the women who came after you got it?

I think you get that sense from Judy Hope’s book too, that [the female students] benefited from the women in the class ahead of them. And in turn they wanted the women in the class behind them to have it easier. But most of this, it just came with the territory. We didn’t even question it. I don’t remember anyone asking to have a women’s bathroom put in, in Langdell Hall. We just accepted that’s the way it was. [Editor’s note: The family of Rhoda Solin Isselbacher actually recalled that Rhoda, as the law school’s first pregnant student, once stood up in class to demand that the women be allowed to use the men’s bathroom. Read that story here.]

And the same thing with the dormitories. They did have housing for married students. Marty had been in service for two years. So there are a number of people in his class who had been called into service at the tail end of the Korean War. And they were coming back to law school, and some of them lived in the apartments for married students. But none of their wives were attending law school.

1993 swearing-in of RBG.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in 1993, being sworn in to serve on the Supreme Court. Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma via Getty Images

We heard precious few stories of men who were great allies during that time. A lot of women, by the way, described Marty as a great ally but said they didn’t have a lot of men around who were supporting them.

[There were] the two who tried to persuade Alice Vogel twice, at the end of her first year, end of her second year, [to join the Law Review]. John Winston and Frank Goodman. Frank ended up on the University of Pennsylvania law faculty, and he was married to Henry Friendly’s daughter Joan Friendly. And John Winston, I don’t know what he did, but he’s still living, and he’s living in New York. But they were very supportive of me, especially on the Law Review. They’re both very funny fellows.

But then there was another type, there was someone who had been a year ahead of me at Cornell, who assured me that Harvard Law School was a very tough place, and I couldn’t rely on a good memory to get me through. So there were those types that sort of resented the women’s presence. But most of the people … I mean for me, Harvard Law School was not a competitive place that second year. My second year, Marty’s third, when he was diagnosed with cancer, they rallied round us, his classmates, and they got him through that very trying year. And I had note takers in all of his classes, and members of his class came first to the hospital, and then to home to give him private tutorials.

Marty ended up having the best grades that he ever had in a semester. The semester was 15 weeks, I think he was in class for two weeks. But he had the best teachers, his classmates.

One of the most, I’m sure, unsurprising things that I’m going to tell you, is that all of these women had a really horrendous time getting jobs. And that the same doors that were closed to you were closed to them, and in many ways their stories track yours. Flora said something that I thought was sweet and wanted you to hear it: She said even after graduation and her father was telling her, “Don’t even bother to get a law job. You’re never going to get one. Find something else.” She would look at you and say, “Well, if Ruth Ginsburg can’t get a job, then I’m going to keep trying.” She used you as her kind of marker of, “I’m not going to give up because this is systemic.” She was using the fact that you were struggling to double down her effort. Read more about Flora’s attempt to get her first job.

There was one woman in Marty’s class, Nancy Boxley, later Tepper. She did get a job. She got a job with Whitney North Seymour’s firm. All through law school, I thought that Nancy Boxley from Virginia was in the fox-hunting crowd. It turned out that she was Jewish. She disguised who she was, and that’s how she did get a job with a Wall Street firm. But for me, there wasn’t a single firm in New York … two called me back, I came down to have the interviews, but in the end …

And one of the reasons was they were concerned about how their wives would feel about a man working closely with a woman. And it amazed me, because they all had women secretaries, but that’s just the way it was.

Now Jerry Gunther [who taught me at Columbia Law School] tells a story that I was not aware of until he wrote it in the Hawaii Law Review. He said when he was in charge of clerkships for Columbia students, that he called every judge in Southern District, all the 2nd Circuit judges. And then he thought he had a good prospect, and that was Judge [Edmund] Palmieri, who had been a Columbia undergraduate and a Columbia Law School graduate. And as Jerry told the story, he said, “Give her a chance, and if she doesn’t work out, there’s a young man in her class who’s with a downtown firm, and he’ll jump in and take over. But if you won’t give her a chance, then I will never recommend another Columbia clerk to you.”

I thought all along that Palmieri took a chance on me, because he had two daughters, and he was envisioning how he would want the world to be for his daughters. It was not the case. In later years, he did become a big champion of women’s opportunities. One of his daughters became a doctor, and he was very incensed about the discrimination that she was encountering, the uncompromising hours she had to work.

But anyway, I went through the clerkship thinking that’s why Judge Palmieri took me on. But as Jerry tells the story, Palmieri wasn’t resistant to having a woman as a clerk. He had already had one, but he was concerned about Jane, that he might need me and she might be sick.

There were so many women who described just being unbelievably proud of you. Carol talked about it. It’s clear you represent so much that she is so proud of, and she sees it as her achievement too. Read more about Carol, who, like Justice Ginsburg, is still a practicing judge.

And then there were some who were, I think, frankly a little jealous. Who felt as though you had support from Marty, you had a loving spouse who put you and your career first. And if they’d had some of those breaks, they may have had a very different life. It was just such a complicated story about what we thought was a simple story of sisterhood, and support, and mutual admiration. While you were in it, did you ever have that sense, that this was a little bit fraught? That it was both competitive and supportive, and it was not uncomplicated?

Well, as I said, I had no time to think about emotions. … Rhoda Solin—I had no idea that she was ever jealous of me. I mean, that surprised me when you told me that. [Editor’s note: Prior to the interview, Slate sent Ginsburg some examples of what we had learned about her classmates. Read more about Rhoda’s family’s memories of the relationship between the two women.]

For the women in my class and in Marty’s class, it was getting that first job that was powerfully hard. If the woman got her foot in the door, she did the job very well, and the second job was not the same hurdle.

What you’re finding is these are not flaming feminists, these women, and it’s just pretty much the same in a book that I hope will before much longer see the light of day. [Former Berkeley Law Dean] Herma Hill Kay wrote many biographies of the 14 women in law teaching across the country who preceded her. She was the 15th woman on any law faculty. And when she died, I think she died in 2017, that manuscript got lost. And I don’t know the full story of why it wasn’t published earlier, but I was at Berkeley in September, and I encouraged Dean [Erwin] Chemerinsky—they were having a celebration of her—and I said, if you really want to celebrate her, you’ll see that her book is published. She spent 10 years writing it, and it tells the story of each of these women, and … they have every kind of personality, some shy, some bold.

So there wasn’t a type that became the first woman. … When I transferred to Columbia, that class was considerably smaller than Harvard. But it had 12 women, including one who has been my friend for life, Nina Appel, who was dean of Loyola Chicago Law School for many years.

RBG at a table at an event with two women standing on either side of her to speak with her.
Virginia Davis Nordin and Justice Ginsburg at a Harvard Law reunion. The family of Virginia Davis Nordin
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her husband laughing.
Justice Ginsburg shares a laugh with her husband, Marty, in 2003. Ed Bailey/AP

The women in my Harvard class … I stayed in touch with Jinnie Nordin for many years. In fact, the summer after my second year, we had found an apartment across the street from the place where [Columbia] Law School is now, but we were going to live with Marty’s parents for the summer. So Jinnie was living in our apartment then. She’s the only one in the class that I stayed in touch with. I heard about Flora every now and then.

Flora’s a hoot. At the very end of her interview, I said, “What should we be telling men?” And she said, “I just wish men were better.” And that was very simple for her. But I love what you’re saying, which is some of you were not flaming feminists, and some of you were just having fun, and some of you have gone on to have illustrious careers, and some have not. And that this wasn’t a feminist project.

Right.

I interviewed you a couple of years ago, when Glamour made you woman of the year. And I asked, “What do you do about young women who are coming up, who look at your life as though it’s a million years ago, and couldn’t happen again?” And yet they’re still facing glass ceilings at law firms, and they’re limited in some way. Not limited the way your life was, but limited opportunities and deep frustration about work-life balance. And I feel as though if I were a 1L listening to your story, it would seem like science fiction, so far away and so hard to relate to. And yet, I wonder if you can tell me the parts of what you were seeing at Harvard that are still urgently important for women to focus on.

It’s an unconscious bias. It’s the expectation. You have a lowered expectation when you hear a woman speaking, I think that still goes on. That instinctively when a man speaks, he will be listened to, where people will not expect the woman to say anything of value. But all of the women in my generation have had, time and again, that experience where you say something at a meeting, and nobody makes anything of it. And maybe half an hour later, a man makes the identical point, and people react to it and say, “Good idea.” That, I think, is a problem that persists. Some of it is getting over unconscious bias by becoming conscious of it, which I thought … I’ve told the story about the symphony orchestra many times. People were so sure that they could tell the difference between a woman playing and a man, and when put to the test, when blindfolded, they could not.

Willis Reese was a law professor at Columbia Law School. And he said, there’s one thing he regrets about the old days. He said when the class was moving slowly, and you wanted to get a crisp right answer, “You called on a woman. She was always prepared.” And nowadays, he said, there’s no difference, the women are as unprepared as the men.

That’s progress.

One thing that I did feel in law school was that if I flubbed, that I would be bringing down my entire sex. That you weren’t just failing for yourself, but people would say, “Well, I did expect it of a woman.” It’s like they would say about a woman driver. So I was determined not to leave that impression.

Read the full stories of the lives of each of the nine other women in Justice Ginsburg’s Harvard Law class here. Listen to our special audio series, “The Class of RBG,” here or below.