An Interview With Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership, they’ve 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 was just came with the territory. We didn’t even question it.

S2: Hi and welcome back to Amicus. This is Slate’s podcast about the Supreme Court and the law. I’m Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor at Slate. And I cover the courts and the law for the magazine. And while the high court is out on summer break, we are taking this time to get to know Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You have by now heard our two part special series on the women of Harvard Law School’s class of 1959 and had a chance, I hope, to explore all the photos, stories, letters, the rich archive we’ve collected at Slate, dotcoms, Bavji. But right now for our Slate plus members only, we wanted to share the full interview that I did with Justice Ginsburg back at the end of January. It has been lightly edited for clarity and time. Enjoy.

S3: You’re all arriving at Harvard in nineteen fifty six. Did you even see women when you were first sort of moving in and settling in and walking around, or was it just a sea of men?

S4: There were two women in my section. Just Trudy and Janine Davis later, Norton. So when I went to class, there were the two other women in the class and then I think our section was something like 125, but it was a jump up from modest class. There were five women in his class.

S3: There were more the first year that they took women and did they deliberately divide you into different sections, like did they want to have one or two women?

S4: And let’s say there were nine of us, so they had at least two in every section? Yeah.

S3: One of the things that was interesting, I think it was Carol, who said in her interview that we were all oddities was the word she used. You know, we were all sort of outliers. And I think initially when we started this project, we thought that you’d all clump together and be like a pack. And I was remembering when I started at Stanford Law School, you know, in 1992, all the women were just in a pack. But it doesn’t seem as though that necessarily organically happened. You didn’t kind of travel all the women kind of having each other’s backs. Right. It was a little more complicated.

S4: Well, for me and I had no time to waste because Jane was 14 months when I started, so my time was used very efficiently and in four classes for study after class, come home at four o’clock, it take to take care of Jane. So I didn’t have time for any socializing except on weekends. So the only the only person among the women for a time I was close to Jenny Davis and that continued after law school. It may have been a.. Well, for one thing, she was in my section and she was just a lovely person. She was a Christian scientist, so when Molly had cancer, his third year or 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 with Cindy and a couple of miles ahead of me and she cut her finger, a paper cut, and her finger was bleeding. And I wanted to go over and it for her.

S3: She didn’t she just let it just bleeding onto the desk. Yeah. And so you were so sure how she would be when Marty was in the hospital because it was reacting to a hospital, the. Can you can you talk about there was such a dividing line in the interviews between the people who came with children and spouses and the people who kind of some of the women that we talked to were having cooking dinner for all the men in the class, you know, described. Oh, it was great. I would get notes because, you know, all the men were falling over themselves to help me out. It was that the demarcation point between the women is the people who sort of were all business because they had other things going on and the people who were were a little bit maybe there to look around.

S4: In my first year, I was the only one. Who was married and had a child? Carol. Carol, I think she got married. Did she get married while she was in law school or after 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 just wrote a song about it. So Becca took her first year at Pen and then she was in our second year.

S3: So when she came, she was married. She was married, but she wasn’t in your in your one hour class. Right. And so when Carol describes in some of the interviews she describes, you know, sitting on the steps and doing crossword puzzles, or was it B.J. and Carol and Flora who were all cooking dinners for the men who were just delighting in the free meals? It just seemed like they were in a really different world than you were, I think.

S4: And so the cooking began with the. I don’t know where John Chapman went to law school, but he was on the Stanford faculty for years. It was called the Radcliffe cooking contest. So he and his roommates decided they’d have a competition and they have a different girl come and cook for them. And at the end of the year, they give a prize to the winner of the Radcliffe cooking contest. Then some of the guys in the law school decided they would take up. But the idea that John had but they would use the women in the class instead of the Radcliffe girls.

S3: So and this was fun for the women.

S4: I don’t know. Anyway, I mean, there was a. In those years. The Harvard Law Wives Club, so most of the women that I knew were married to men, mostly in my class, and I got invited to the the wives associations, I was a little boy, but that was to help the wives be supportive of their husbands who were engaged in intensive education at a law school.

S3: Did you feel kind of 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? You must have felt a little bit. I don’t want to say alone because you were married, but it certainly wasn’t the experience they were having.

S4: Yes and no. I did not feel any lack of companionship and money. And the people that we socialize with were mainly in his class. And then I was just so engaged all the time with. He’s in law school with Jane, so I really don’t think I had no time to be lonely or anything like that. I was just constantly engaged and was even more intense my second year when Marty had cancer.

S3: So one of the things that was really stunning to us when we did the interviews was the women’s path to Harvard. And I think when we undertook this, we envisioned a bunch of singularly driven, ambitious women who said, I’m going to go to law school. And as we talk to either the families or to the women themselves, a lot of them were trailing a male law student. A lot of them applied either because they had a boyfriend who was going or they had a in one case, somebody’s dad encouraged them to go. But there wasn’t as much, I think, agency as I expected. And I know I’m using the word trailing reluctantly, because I know you went in some measure to be with Marty. But I, I think I was surprised at how many of them were following a man.

S4: Yeah. And then. An exception to that was Ellie was. It was such a tragedy and you can imagine how. So a young man who was driving that motorcycle. A must have felt. I mean, he eventually came to terms with it and he married and I hope had a happy life, but. So I don’t think any us came to Harvard because she was following her boyfriend. BGN I don’t know, we will all of all the women in the class, I was most impressed with her because she had been both a model and an actuary. Very unusual combination. Also, she dated it was a friend of mine in our class, which in my study group, her global, he went out with both PJ and and with Jenny Davis.

S3: Can we talk about the the story but the Dean Griswold story than I I only bring it up because Floret told us that she actually thought that Dean Griswold was trying to be helpful to women.

S4: He was. Dean, there’s a book that you probably saw. It’s called Pinstripes and Pearls and Judy Ho. And she has as an appendix the budget, what it was going to cost for women to come to Harvard Law School. The cost was fixing up a bathroom in Austin, Austin Hall, which, by the way, was and was always overheated. It was a specialist dripping from the ceiling before we knew that asbestos wasn’t good for people’s health. But that’s an in line. Dell the other day were in those days just to teaching building. Langdale had no bathroom accessible to the women students, so it was only the one in the Austin basement. Anyway, the dean, each of us had an escort, so he arranged for somebody in the faculty to sit next to each of the women in my escort, which is a very well-known Columbia Law School. Professor Wexler, pro-Brexit, anyway. I’m told that the escorts before they came to the Griswold’s home for dinner, went nearby to Judge Magruder’s house. He also lived in Belmont. And because the dean didn’t serve any alcohol, so they were Jefferson and. The dean, there were many good things about the individual, including his bravery in the McCarthy era and the book he wrote about 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 Thomas is on the faculty that these women were going to do something worthwhile with the 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 just waste this wonderful education that they would get. And he didn’t have any sense that he was making the women feel uncomfortable about this. I don’t know what floor I told you about her answer, but as I remember, she said, doing visual, there are X number. Of us, well, Wilkinsburg doesn’t count for this purpose. There were 500 of them. What better place to find a man?

S3: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have to ask what the escorts were. There were escorts to take you.

S4: They were just sitting next to us at dinner and sitting next to us when we moved from the dining room to the living room, when he had the chairs arranged in a horseshoe. So Herb Wexler was sitting next to me in those days I smoked, I heard was a chain smoker. So I had the ashtray that we were sharing on my lap. And when I got up to say something on cigarette butts were on the floor that Chris was living, you know. Oh, was what really one of those moments when you wish you could have a trapdoor to fall through?

S5: So I mumbled something about my husband is in the second year class. And I think it’s important for a wife to understand fractions where if you could answer it again today in the full fullness of knowledge, and I never it wasn’t a truthful answer that I gave it. Yeah.

S6: But.

S4: Yeah, 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.

S3: We now have to ask you about a story that we heard from several of the women that we I have to say my jaw hit the floor. They describe something called Ladies’ Day didn’t happen in my section.

S4: The profession notorious for ladies was Barton Leach, my section. We we let you stay yesterday.

S3: And did you hear the story of how he made them sing?

S4: I didn’t know about the singing I knew, but lining them up in the first row and after ignoring them the whole semester, that one day concentrating. All the attention, but I think my classmates were warned by the women in the class ahead what they could expect. Oh, well, this is a funny story when I was nine years later at Columbia and Billie Jean King just won her match with Bobby Riggs, one of the professors who announced with greatly that tomorrow in honor of Billie Jean King, we’re going to celebrate Ladies Day. And he had no idea what the history of ladies they had been.

S3: Was it was it deliberate hazing or was it meant to be funny, the the I mean, it sounds like he just was kind of bullying them. It was interesting because both Carol and Flora remembered it like every the singing in every sort of detail of it. But they both laughed about it. And then after laughing about it, Carol said that was so degrading. But it was interesting because I felt like it was such a window into it’s both funny, but also kind of deliberately humiliating.

S4: Yeah, well, there were episodes like the one in my section. We had six days a week classes, six days a week. So Saturday morning classes and we had. Visitors to people we’ve been close to in the Army and I brought the woman to class with me. Jill Meerut and she she. Far from going to law school, she hasn’t even gone to college, so McKirdy might contract before she calls on her. And and I stood up and said, she’s my houseguest. 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 guests and I would answer the question really? Yes. And it and he said something about Mrs. Ginsburg being a killjoy.

S3: Did he give you a C plus in contracts?

S4: No, but I had one of the maybe the best teacher I ever had. My first year in law school was Ben Kaplan. He was never and never did anything to wound or when he was a master of the Socratic technique. But he always used it in a positive way so students would give an answer. He would rephrase it and said, You mean and so McKirdy was a typical Harvard professor that I would like to make students feel uncomfortable.

S3: One of the things that we heard from Alice’s family was that she got on law review. She was the she she sort of made it to law review and then they immediately sent out, you know, we don’t have dorms for you. You know, it’s only only the men who are arriving early are going to get dorms and there’s, you know, no place for you to to sleep. And it seemed as though, again, they they made an effort to accommodate her sort of on the fly. But it was another one of those, you know, that the initial reaction is just, well, girls just can’t be here in the dorms. And it felt like another one of those situations where we couldn’t tell how often there were, you know, women were deliberately trying to fix it for the women who came behind and how how often it was just I just need a place to stay so I can be on law review in the law review.

S4: Invitations went out at the end of the first year. So it wasn’t a competition. It was just strictly on basis of grades. And so the Alice, she was getting married or she just gotten married and she just turned it down because of. Her husband. The dormitory is something else I had from Cornell, where the girls had to live in the dorm, that was I was excused for having a four to one ratio for guys every year. Because the boys could live in college, but the girls had to live in the dormitory and get to the Harvard Law School and there’s no room for the girls in the dorm, didn’t matter to me because we were going to be the dorm anyway. But 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.

S3: So they didn’t they didn’t at any point create housing for the women. They just said, good luck finding an apartment in Cambridge. Yeah, that was the dream during my time. Another version of the same thing was I think this is Marilyn Rose. She was very frustrated. She wanted to be in the public defender’s, uh, group at Harvard. And it was all male and they were not going to let her in. And so she does the same thing where she instead of trying to get herself in. Make sure that women following her can be in the public defenders group, and so I think I’m just asking it kind of a complicated question, but we’re trying to there sometimes you just meet a roadblock and a lot of the women then took it upon themselves to make sure that wasn’t going to happen to whoever came after. And I think what I’m trying to understand is, is that just a function of that’s what you did. If you couldn’t if you couldn’t get it, then you made sure the people who came after you got it, or is that something Harvard bred?

S4: I think you get that sense from Judy Holmesburg book, too, that they 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 was just came with the territory, we didn’t even question it, we I don’t remember anyone asking to have a women’s bathroom put in a line the whole. We just accepted that that’s the way it was. And the same thing with the dormitories, they did have housing for married students, none of that. I forgot the name of that housing may still exist. So some of the money had been in service for two years. So the number of people in his class who had been called into service at the tail end of the Korean War and then coming back to law school, and some of those lived in the apartments for married students, but all their wives, none of them were ever attending law school.

S3: A lot of women, by the way, who describe Marty as a great ally, but didn’t have a lot of men around that were supporting them.

S4: We were wondering if you had stories of other men who were massively supportive of the two men who tried to persuade Alex Vogel twice and again put first year in for a second year, John Winston and Frank Goodman. Frank ended up on the University of Pennsylvania law faculty and he was married to an refurnished daughter, Joan, for any one of his daughters and John Winston, and then 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 and very funny fellows. But then there was another time 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 was 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 research when he was diagnosed with cancer, they rallied around us, his classmates, and they got him through that very trying year. And I had no takers in all of his classes. Members of his class came first to the hospital and then to whom to give him kind of private tutorials. So that was my experience with Harvard Law School. To this day. I remember the people who were so helpful to us. We ended up having the best grades that he ever had in a semester. He attended I think the semester was 15 weeks.

S3: 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 where they have to keep sort of moving orthogonal to what they want to get to because they can’t get directly there. But Flores said something that I thought was sweet and we wanted to have you react, she said. You know, 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, you know, find something else. She would sort of look at you and say, well, you know, if if if Ruth Ginsburg can’t get a job, then I’m going to keep trying like she used you as her kind of marker of I’m not going to give up because this is systemic. And I thought that was such a it was a very it’s not the way you think that story would go. But she was using the fact that you were struggling to to double down her effort.

S4: There was one woman in Molly’s class, Nancy Buxley, later, Tipper. She did get a job. She got a job with but, you know, she was firm, but she did it all through law school. I thought that Nancy Boxley from Virginia. Was in the fox hunting ground. It turned out that she was Jewish, she disguised who she was. And that’s how she did get a job with a little Wall Street firm, but for me it was. There wasn’t a single firm in New York, two who called me back. I came down to the interviews, but in the end. And one of the reasons we’re darn sure that my nephew should have been in the film. Was they were concerned about how their wives would feel. But working a working closely with the women amaze me because they all had women secretaries, but that’s just the way it was. Now, Jerry Gonzales tells a story that I was not aware of until he wrote it. And it’s in the Hawaii law review to some issue.

S6: And about me.

S4: He said when he was in charge of clerkships for Columbia students that he called. Every judge in the Southern District of the 2nd Circuit judges and then he thought he had. A good prospect, and that was Judge Palmieri, who had been a Columbia undergraduate and a Columbia Law School graduate, and Jerry told the story. He said, give her a chance. And if she doesn’t work out. A dozen young men in her class with the downtown firm and will jump in and take over. Well, if you won’t give her a chance and I will never recommend another Kamikura to Jerry tells that story and I thought all along that Palmieri took a chance on me because he had two daughters and a son who was the third child in the family. And he was envisioning how he would want the world to be for his daughters was not the case in later years. He did become a big champion of women’s opportunities, one of his daughters. And became a doctor, and he was very incensed about the discrimination that she was encountering, the uncompromising hours that she said she had to wear. But anyway, so I went to the clerkship thinking that’s why Judge Your took me on it. But as very tells the story, Palmari wasn’t resistant to having a woman is a clerk. He had already had one.

S6: But he was concerned about. It, Jane, that.

S4: He might need me and she might be sick one.

S3: I’m trying to imagine what it feels like, Justice Ginsburg, to think that somebody was a kind of enlightened champion of women, only to find out he took you under duress because he was threatened. Yeah. You know, I’ve heard you tell the story of Chief Justice Rehnquist and how, you know, he had a real evolution in how he thought around the Family Medical Leave Act. And this is not really somebody having an evolution as much as just being forced to take you and then realizing years later maybe that, oh, that was a good idea. Yes. Yeah. I think that the other thread I want to just pull on from the interviews is, is there were so many women who described just being unbelievably proud of you. You know, Carol talked about, you know, it’s clear you represent so much that she is so proud of and she sees it as her achievement, too. And then there were some who were like, I think frankly, a little jealous, you know, who felt as though you had support from Marty. You had a loving spouse who put you in your career first. And, you know, if they’d had some of those breaks they made, it may have had a very different life. And I’m sure you’re not hearing this from the first for the first time. But it was just such a complicated story about what we thought was a simple story of sisterhood and support and mutual admiration. It’s complicated. And I think it made us think as we were doing this project that when you’re the only and really the only you are in some sense in this zero sum situation with the women around you. I mean, it’s just hard to be big hearted and generous when I guess some of them felt like you were getting their breaks. And I don’t know even exactly what my question is other than to say I’m wondering if while you were in it, you had that sense that this was a little bit fraught, that it was competitive and supportive and it was not uncomplicated.

S4: Well, as I said, I had no time to think about emotions or and will respond. I told you she was in the other Jewish sorority at Cornell and not mine, but I had no idea that she was ever jealous of me. Mean that that surprised me for the women in my class anymore. This was 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 on the second job was not the same hurdle to finding about these. These are not blaming feminists, these women. And it’s just pretty much the same in a book that I hope will be for very much longer. See the light of day and age, her milk. Will a mini biographies of the 14 women in law teaching across the country who preceded her, she was a 15th woman on any law faculty when she died. I think he died in twenty seventeen. 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 encourage Dean Chemerinsky. They were having a celebration of her. And I said we really want to celebrate her. You’ll see that her book is just published. She spent 10 years writing it. And it tells the story of each of these women, they have every kind of personality, some shy, some born, there wasn’t a type that became the first woman. But I have two classes with women because when I transferred to Columbia, that class. Was considerably smaller than Harvard, but he had 12 women, including one who was beaten by prison for life, is Nina Apel, who was dean of Loyola Chicago Law School for many years. Many of the women in my Harvard class, I stayed in touch with Jenny, known for many years, in fact, at the. The summer after my second year. We had found an apartment across the street from the place where the law school is now, but we will learn to live with Molly’s parents for the summer. So Jenny Davis was living in our apartment that that she was taking courses at Columbia, did not love horses, so she said she was the only one in the class that I stayed in touch when I heard about Flora every now.

S3: And Flora is a hoot. You’ll love her interview. It was it was something it was something else. At the very end of her interview, I said, you know, what should we be telling men? And she said that they should be better, should just be better. And that was very simple for her. But I do. I love what you’re saying, which is some of them were not flaming feminists and some of them were just having fun. And some of them have gone on to have illustrious careers and some have not. And this wasn’t a feminist project, right? Yeah. I interviewed you a couple of years ago when Glamour made you Women of the Year. And I interviewed you and I said, you know, 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, you know, glass ceilings at law firms and 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 one hour 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 of what you were seeing at Harvard that are still.

S4: Urgently important for women to focus on, it’s unconscious bias, it’s the expectation. Your lowered expectation when you hear a woman speaking, I think that still that still goes on instinctively when a man speaks, he will be listened to where people will not expect the woman to say anything of a value. But all of the women in my generation have had time and again that experience. When you say something at a meeting and nobody makes anything of it. And maybe a half 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. And getting over unconscious bias by becoming conscious of it, which I thought I told the story about the symphony orchestra many times, our people were so sure that they could tell the difference between a woman playing and a man and woman put to the blindfolded. They they could not.

S3: We are so grateful for your time. This has been such an amazing window into a part of the story we just didn’t know. Thank you so very, very much, Justice Ginsburg.

S4: You’re more than welcome. It’s amazing, amazing to me. And I heard from you how distinctly I remember each of these women.

S3: Like, can you imagine their faces and your.

S5: Yes.

S7: Yeah, yeah, you know, the story that will as we learn that the story about him being really Sleeth was a great selfless and he said all this one thing he regrets about the old days. He said when the class was moving slowly and you wanted to get a crisp. Right. And so you called the woman. She was always prepared. Nowadays, he said, well, there’s no difference.

S8: The women said that’s progress.

S7: But that was the sense that one thing that I did feel in the school was that if I found that, I would be bringing down my entire sex, that you were just failing yourself. But people would say, well, I didn’t expect him. Every moment it’s like they would say about a woman, driver, boyfriend. So so I was determined not to leave that impression. And in my first year class was Anthony Lewis, who was living with fellowship that I didn’t know. And so that led me to take courses, any place in the university, any and the of these Inventables for a procedure, but that I came home after the first day and the morning, if all that’s what they were making. And and then I thought, OK, I’m going to show up in class as often. Is this Mr. Lewis, tell me.

S8: Thank you for your time and for your memory.

S2: That there’s a link to the transcript of this interview in the show, notes where you can find more information about all the women and explainers on some of the details. Justice Ginsburg shared we’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a look behind the scenes of how we pulled the series together with my reporting partner, Molly Olmstead. And then on August 29th will be back with full, regular episodes of Amicus as we get ready to start the next Supreme Court term. Thank you so much for listening in. Thank you so much for supporting Slate Plus. And thank you so much for your letters and questions. You can keep in touch at Amicus, at Slate, Dotcom, and you can always find us at Facebook. Dot com slash amicus podcast Amicus Presents. The Class of Garbagey was produced by me, Dahlia Lithwick and Sara, burning him with editorial direction by Laura Bennett and Susan Matthews. Molly Olmstead, a staff writer at Slate, contributed an immense amount of reporting to this project. Gabriel Roth is editorial director. Alicia Montgomery is executive producer, and June Thomas is senior managing producer of Slate podcasts. The artwork for this special series is by Holly.