HELEN HARRISON APPEL: Good evening. My name is Helen Harrison Appel, and I want to welcome you all this evening as we continue our national celebration of the 150th anniversary of the founding of Cornell University.
I am a member of the Board of Trustees at the New York Historical Society, but most of all, a loyal Cornellian. I was a History major in the College of Arts and Sciences many, many years ago, and my Cornell experience guided my career.
And that's the same thing that has happened with our two guests this evening. Both are Cornellians. Both majored in Government. Both graduated with distinction. And both eventually went on to teach courses in women and constitutional law.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Class of 1954, as we all know, is the Associate Justice at the Supreme Court of the United States. Gretchen Ritter, Class of 1983, is the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell and the first woman to achieve that role.
Both today have reached high levels of leadership, and we will be privileged to hear their conversation. So given all of that, please welcome Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Dean Gretchen Ritter.
GRETCHEN RITTER: Well, that's a nice way to start.
Let me start by saying this is such a thrill for me, Justice Ginsburg. I have been a fan and admirer of yours forever. And when I heard that I might have the opportunity to do this, I told them, well, you could have gotten me for dean without even paying me.
Don't tell my boss that. So let me begin by saying that I'm struck by the fact that you came to Cornell as a first-generation college student from a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. What was that experience like for you?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: It wasn't-- let's put it this way. I was not the first member of my family to attend Cornell University. My mother's eldest brother was. And it was typical of families at that time that the eldest brother went to college and the others worked to support the family so that the eldest son could be in college.
And I had heard about Cornell from the waitresses who worked at the lodge at the summer camp I attended.
GRETCHEN RITTER: Good source of information.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: But I wasn't prepared for the incredible beauty of the place, especially in the fall, in the fall and in the spring. So for the students, thank goodness for the long winter.
GRETCHEN RITTER: Yes. And I heard that you were one of just a handful of Jewish women students at Cornell in the early 1950s. In fact, I've been told that you were all housed together on the same hallway in Clara Dixon Hall whole your freshman year.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Yes. I think that there are four of us here tonight.
GRETCHEN RITTER: There are some in the audience? How wonderful. There we go.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I don't know whether it was happenstance that these seven women were housed on one side and the other side of the corridor. It could have been happenstance. It could have been that whoever arranged for housing wanted us to be comfortable. Or it could have been that they wanted to set us apart from the others. It could have been any of them.
But there was great chemistry among the seven of us, and we have remained friends through the years.
GRETCHEN RITTER: That's wonderful. What was it like 60 years ago to be a Jewish woman student at Cornell?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: First we'll start with "woman." Cornell had ratio. There were four guys to every gal.
GRETCHEN RITTER: That sounds pretty good.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: When I mention this to a classmate of mine-- a Cornell classmate, a male classmate-- he said, four to one? I thought it was 10 to one. It was so hard to get a date.
Well, Cornell's excuse-- well, the reason that they gave for the ratio-- the girls had to live in the dormitories. The boys could live in a college town if there was no university housing for them.
I didn't appreciate the extent to which there was religious separation until it came time to rush for fraternities and sororities. There were Jewish fraternities and Jewish sororities and Christian fraternities and sororities, and that's the way it was. I hope that has changed.
GRETCHEN RITTER: That has definitely changed. And given that we're at the start of a new school year, I wonder what advice you might give to a young woman starting at Cornell today.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Cornell is a school blessed with a fabulous faculty, and I would advise students to take advantage of that. I went to law school after Cornell, but I'm very glad that I didn't specialize in pre-law or anything like that. The classes that I remember best were the music and art courses, and the best European literature course anyone could have taken anywhere. It was Nabokov's modern European literature.
GRETCHEN RITTER: Very famous class.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: So that would be my advice. Even if you're in the engineering school, try to take advantage of a diverse education.
GRETCHEN RITTER: It warms my heart as dean.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: And remember that the winter is the time to study.
GRETCHEN RITTER: There you. go. I, like many people, I think, am deeply impressed by the accounts of your marriage and the love and partnership that you shared with your husband Marty. You seem to have had a really egalitarian marriage, a marriage that was built on respect, admiration, and on good humor. And it strikes me that having such a marriage in the early 1950s was a bit unusual, and I wonder if you had a sense of being a pioneer.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: It was more than a bit unusual.
One of the sadnesses about the brilliant girls who attended Cornell is that they kind of suppressed how smart they were. Marty and I met when I was 17. He was 18. He had a girlfriend at Smith College. I had a boyfriend elsewhere.
Friends of ours, including one of the famous seven, was dating a friend of Marty's. Marty at the time had a gray Chevrolet. And those two thought, it's a long week between weekends when you can visit your amour wherever he is away.
So that's how Marty and I met. We were best friends. And he was the first guy I had ever dated who cared that I had a brain. And he was extraordinary.
GRETCHEN RITTER: Wonderful. Now, I know that you have been deeply touched in your life by cancer. You lost your mother to cancer when you were just a teenager. You lost Marty to cancer in 2010. And you have fought and won your own battles against cancer. How have those experiences affected your outlook on life?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I should say that I had my first cancer bout in 1999. It was colorectal cancer. It was the year of first surgery and then chemotherapy, and then the two together, the six terrible weeks of chemotherapy and radiation.
I managed to get by, I think, because of my job. I didn't have time to worry about how this or that wasn't working right. I had to read that brief, to be on the bench.
10 Years later, I had pancreatic cancer. And by then, I knew that it was possible to manage. I think what it has left me is the enhanced appreciation of the joys of being alive.
GRETCHEN RITTER: Wonderful. I want to ask you about your passion for social justice, and where that came from. I wonder, did it come from your parents, where you grew up? Were there any of the experiences that you had at Cornell that contributed to that?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I suppose the earliest influence was growing up in World War II. That was a war against racism. And then I came to understand our troops in that war were separated by race. It wasn't until the very end of the war. So there was something wrong about that.
When I got to Cornell, it was not a great time for our country. It was the heyday of Senator Joe McCarthy from Wisconsin. There was a Red Scare abroad in the land. At Cornell, a beloved professor of zoology, Professor Singer, was told that he could remain at university and do research but he was not to teach classes, because he had belonged to some socialist youth group in the '30s.
I had a professor for constitutional law, and I also worked as his research assistant. He wanted me to appreciate that our country was straying from its most basic values. I would check red Channels for him every week. That was the blacklist for the entertainment industry.
We did an exhibition at the library on book burning through the ages. Professor [INAUDIBLE] impressed on me that there were lawyers standing up for the people who were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Senate Internal Security committee, and reminding the members of Congress that there is a First Amendment that guarantees the right to think, speak, and write without big brother government telling you what is correct speech.
And there was a Fifth Amendment that protected us against self-incrimination. There were lawyers who were in business for profit but were also spending their time trying to repair the wounds that existed in our society at that time.
And on influences, Professor Nabokov changed the way I read and he changed the way I write. Even when I'm drafting an opinion, thinking how the word order should go, I remember him.
GRETCHEN RITTER: That's wonderful.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I remember after President Clinton nominated you, you talked about how pleased you were and excited you were to be joining Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. And I remember seeing a video clip of you and President Clinton and Justice O'Connor where you said you always wished you'd had a sister-- which is something I can appreciate, having grown up with four brothers.
So I wonder about the sisterhood on the Court.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Well, Sandra's comment about my coming on board-- she said, if you think I'm happy there is another woman on this court, you can't imagine how happy John O'Connor is that he isn't the only male spouse.
In fact, one of the things that John did early on, he proposed Marty's admission to the Denis Thatcher club. So what is the Denis Thatcher club? There's only one qualification. Your wife has a job that, in your heart of hearts, you would really like to have.
Sandra was very much of a big sister to me in many ways. The legend is that the new justice, the junior justice, at the end of the first sitting will get a one issue unanimous opinion to write. My old Chief signed me an opinion. And the lawyers will know what I say what the case was about. It was an ERISA case.
ERISA is the [INAUDIBLE] statute that Congress ever passed. And we were six to three, and Sandra was in the three. I went to Sandra, who knew the Chief very well. They had both gone to Stanford Law School at the same time. It was rumored that they'd dated each other.
And I said, Sandra, how could he do this to me? She said, Ruth, you do it. You just do it. And get out your opinion before he makes the next set of assignments. Otherwise, you'll get another rotten case. But that was Sandra's attitude about everything-- just do it. Whatever is put on your plate, you do it.
Sandra had had breast cancer and extensive surgery. She was on the bench nine days after her surgery. So when I had my first cancer bout, I would have had over two weeks before I had to show up. But I did show up.
And Sandra's advice was, Ruth, schedule chemotherapy for Friday because that way you get over it in the weekend and you can be back in court on Monday.
One other thing about my coming on board that made Sandra very happy-- for the 12 years when she was the lone woman on the court, there was a bathroom in the robing room. It said "Men."
So Sandra, when the need arose, had to go all the way back to the front of the building to her chambers. When I was appointed, they did a repair in the robing room, created a women's bathroom equal in size to the men's.
GRETCHEN RITTER: Progress.
Now, I think many Americans do not appreciate what a key role you played in the effort to win constitutional rights for women in the 1970s when you were the leader of the Women's Rights Project of the ACLU. Not many people know that you are, in many ways, the Thurgood Marshall of women's rights in this country.
The extraordinary set of cases that you argued and won before the court in the '70s remain the foundation of women's constitutional equality today. Why do you think that string of victories is less understood and appreciated than the key civil rights cases from two decades earlier?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I feel uncomfortable when people compare me to Thurgood Marshall, for this reason-- whatever I did, my life was not in danger as his was in all the years that he led the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
I think the change that had occurred in society from the '60s to the '70s was enormous. Let me go back to 1961, when we had the quote "liberal" Earl Warren court, the court that decided Brown v. Board, many important decisions in the criminal justice area.
The case came to the Court, Hoyt against Florida, in 1961. Gwendolyn Hoyt, the defendant in the case, was what we would today call a battered woman. Her abusive philandering husband one day so humiliated her, she was quite beside herself. I compared her situation to Billy Budd when Claggart accuses Billy Bud of fomenting a mutiny.
She spied her young son's baseball bat in the corner of the room, and with all her might hit him over the head. He fell on a stone floor. End of their fight, beginning of the murder prosecution.
Florida in those days did not put women on juries. And Gwendolyn Hoyt thought there was something wrong about that. Her thought was, if there were women on that jury, they might better understand my plight than men would. And maybe they wouldn't acquit me, but perhaps they would convict me of manslaughter, the lesser offense, and not murder.
Well, she was convicted by an all-male jury of murder, and when challenged to the exemption of women from jury service came to the Supreme Court, the attitude was, we don't understand what this complaint is about. Women have the best of all possible worlds. If they really want to serve, they can go to the clerk's office in the court and sign up and put themselves on the roll. But if they don't volunteer, we won't follow them.
And Gwendolyn Hoyt, when she heard that that's what the court decided, must have been thinking, what about me? I am claiming that my due process right to a jury of my peers has been rejected.
Anyway, so we flash forward to '71. Warren Burger is now the Chief Justice. He is known as quote, "conservative." And in the decade from '71 to '79, the court struck down dozens of federal and state statutes one after the other, because they differentiated arbitrarily between men and women.
My cases were easy in this sense, because people recognized what was so wrong with the laws. So the turning point case was in 1971, a woman named Sally Reed from Boise, Idaho. She and her husband divorced when their child had a son when he was what lawyers call "of tender years." Sally was his custodian.
The father, when the boy was in his teens, applied to the family court to be the custodian. The argument was, now he must be prepared to live in a man's world. Sally was sorely distressed. She thought the father would be a bad influence on the child. The boy became deeply depressed, and one day took out one of his father's many guns and committed suicide.
So Sally wanted to be appointed administrator of his estate. She applied. And two weeks later, her former husband applied. There was no economic reason involved. The boy had a small bank account, a record collection, a guitar, not much more.
The probate judge said to Sally, I know you applied first, but this is what the Idaho code says. Between people equally entitled to administer a decedent's estate, males must be referred to females. That was the first time in the history of the United States that a gender line was declared unconstitutional. But Sally Reed probably didn't even know what the word "feminist" meant. She was just an everyday person.
And then a couple of years later, there was another case. The plaintiff with Stephen Wiesenfeld. His wife was a math teacher in a public school. She had a very healthy pregnancy. Taught into the ninth month. Went to the hospital to deliver, and the doctor came out and told Stephen, you have a healthy baby boy but your wife died of an embolism. So Stephen vowed that he would personally care for that child until the child was in school full-time.
He went to the Social Security office to sign up for what he thought were benefits due when a child under 12 has a sole surviving parent. And he was told, I'm sorry, Mr. Wiesenfeld, these are mother's benefits.
So he wrote a letter to the editor of his local Edison, New Jersey newspaper, and it was to this effect. I'm tired of hearing all this talk about women's lib. Let me tell you what happened to me.
Well, his case was the perfect pair to Sally's. Why was he in that position? Because the world was divided into breadwinning men and caregiving, hearth-keeping women. And the laws were designed to fit that stereotype. And if someone didn't fit the mold, well, that was just too bad.
Stephen Wiesenfeld's case was decided by the Supreme Court in 1975. Again, it was a unanimous opinion. In that unanimous judgment, they divided three ways on the reasons.
The majority said, we understand where this discrimination begins. It begins with the women as wage earner. She pays the same Social Security taxes that a man pays, but she doesn't get for her family the same protection.
Two of them thought it was discrimination against the male as parent, that a male parent would not have the opportunity to be the personal caregiver for his child. And one, a justice who voted against my position in every case but this one-- and he later became my Chief, then-Justice Rehnquist-- said, this is totally arbitrary from the point of view of the baby.
So these gender lines in the law were bad for everyone-- bad for women, bad for men, and bad for children. I think society had so changed that the cases that I was arguing, people said, of course that's how it should come out.
For one thing, there was inflation. And the two-earner family became much more common than it was earlier.
Another is longevity. I think in my grandmother's time, a woman didn't have many more years to live when the youngest child was grown. But now, women live into their '80s and beyond. And what do you do with those years, when there are no children left at home? So women were coming back into the labor force.
And means of controlling birth became more accessible. All of those things were working to make this change something that was not disturbing. It was more, of course that's the way it should be.
Oh, I should say one other thing, too. I did have a challenge. And in this way, it was different from Thurgood Marshall as well. Everyone knew that race discrimination was odious, but many people thought that gender lines in the law operated benignly in the woman's favor. It was not malign. It was benign. So she was spared the obligation to serve on a jury.
Of course, the point was that if you are a citizen, you have obligations as well as rights. And by exempting women from jury duty-- this is society. The laws are saying, you are expendable. If you want to serve, we'll let you serve. But we don't need you for the administration of justice. We do need men.
That division of the world-- well, think of all the jobs that were off limits to women. There were no women police officers. There were no women firefighters. So the effort was to break down laws based on the stereotype, and free people-- men as well as women-- to be you and to be me, to be able to achieve and aspire to do whatever your god-given talents allow you to do without artificial barriers in your way.
And those laws-- there are a precious few still remaining. They're almost all gone by the end of the '70s.
GRETCHEN RITTER: You make it sound as if you had so little to do with it, but I don't think that's true.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: It was getting the Court to put its imprimatur on a change that had already occurred in society. That's the way I regarded it. And I was fantastically lucky to be there.
GRETCHEN RITTER: We were fantastically lucky that you were there.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: On the brief of Sally Reed, we put two names, Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray. These were women who were saying the same things that we were saying, but society was not yet ready to listen.
GRETCHEN RITTER: I hear you're a great fan of opera.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Yes. I'm going to the opening of the Washington National Opera on Saturday, and the next day to the Washington Concert opera.
GRETCHEN RITTER: Do you have a favorite opera or composer?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I love almost all operas. If I had to pick one composer, it would be Mozart. If I had to pick one opera, one day it would be Don Giovanni and the next day it would be The Marriage of Figaro. But I love Puccini. Verdi, certainly. Rossini, Bellini, all of them.
And contemporary operas . I go every summer to Cooperstown, New York-- not for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but for the Glimmerglass festival. And then my next stop is Santa Fe. It has a marvelous summer opera. And I've even been a super twice, an extra.
GRETCHEN RITTER: Oh! How fun. And I hear, in fact, that you are the subject of an opera.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Yes.
This is an opera that has not yet had a full staging. But we expect that it will in June of 2015. The opera is called Scalia/Ginsburg.
And the first thing my feminist friends say to me is, how did you let Scalia go first?
Then I have to explain that in the Court, everything is done by seniority. And although Scalia is later in the alphabet, he was appointed several years before I was. So that's why it is Scalia-Ginsburg.
It was written by a composer named Derrick Wang. He was a music major at Harvard, and then got an advanced degree in music from Yale. Decided it might be useful to know a little bit about the law. And in his second year, he's taking constitutional law and he's reading these dueling opinions, Scalia-Ginsburg, and thinks, that could make a very funny opera.
And I'll give you just a couple of examples from Scalia/Ginsburg. So it opens with Scalia's rage aria.
GRETCHEN RITTER: US v. Virginia, perhaps?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: What?
GRETCHEN RITTER: US v. Virginia, perhaps?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I must be?
GRETCHEN RITTER: Would that be US v. Virginia?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Oh. Well, that was certainly one of the rages. There have been others.
Anyway, the rage aria goes like this, "The justices are blind. How can they possibly spout this? The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this."
And then I answer. I tell my dear friend that he is searching for right line solutions to problems that don't have easy answers. But the great thing about our constitution is that, like our society, it can evolve.
Well, the plot goes on. And there's a scene in which Justice Scalia is locked up in a dark room for excessive dissenting.
And I enter to rescue him. I enter through a glass ceiling.
I'm interested in knowing how that's going to be staged.
Then it goes on, and there's a final duet. The first line is, we are different. We are one. That is, different in the way we go about interpreting our fundamental instrument of government, but one in our reverence for the federal judiciary and for the Court we serve. And we are one in that respect for the Court, and want to do whatever we can to make sure that we don't damage it.
GRETCHEN RITTER: Lovely.
I have to ask you about one last thing before we turn to our audience. And forgive me for saying this, but you don't strike me as your typical social media rockstar. I'm referring, of course, to Notorious RBG, which is a Tumblr site as well as a set of T-shirts, I gather now. Were you surprised by this?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I think it's quite wonderful.
And so do my granddaughters. It's an NYU law student that created this. I will admit that when I was first told about "Notorious RBG," my law clerks had to explain to me what the "Notorious" reference was.
GRETCHEN RITTER: Well, I think--
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Let me-- on the subject of T-shirts, "Notorious RBG" is very good, but it wasn't the first. The very first T-shirt was created by the National Association of Women Judges in the fall of 1993, when I was just coming on board. They had a reception for Justice O'Connor and me, and they gave her a T-shirt that says "I'm Sandra, not Ruth."
Then the next one was after Bush v. Gore. That was the "I Dissent" T-shirt. People thought I did that because I didn't want to say, I respectfully dissent. What they didn't notice was I never use "respectfully dissent." I read one of my colleague's dissenting opinion that speaks about the opinion of the Court as being "profoundly misguided" or "the Court's opinion is not to be taken seriously," and then the tagline is, "I respectfully dissent."
So what I do is, if I were to uphold the decision of a lower court that the court is rejecting-- for these reasons, I would affirm the decision of the such-and-such court. Or, for these reasons, I would reverse the decision. And then I don't say "respectfully."
Then the next T-shirt was after the voting rights case. And that, I will be frank to say-- because I did it in my dissent-- next to Citizens United, which was the campaign finance, it's the worst decision while I've been serving on the Court.
This is the Voting Rights Act renewed by Congress, passed overwhelmingly. Both sides of the aisle agreed that there was still a need for the Voting Rights Act. And the Court decision gutted the act. So that was--
GRETCHEN RITTER: So it was at least deserving of a T-shirt.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Yes. And that was also created by a law student. And then "Notorious RBG," you can get it in anything. You can get a hoodie. You can get a T-shirt.
GRETCHEN RITTER: Well, I'm thinking there ought to be a Cornell version of "Notorious RBG."
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A conversation with Ruth Bader Ginsburg '54, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and Gretchen Ritter '83, Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Recorded September 18, 2014 at the New-York Historical Society.