If you’ve read many of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg appreciations (or watched “On the Basis of Sex,” the 2019 movie about her life), you likely know that Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold asked Ginsburg, along with the small group of nine female students in their class of hundreds, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?”
And if you’ve read the appreciations (or watched the movie), you also know the answer.
Because she belonged there. Because she earned the spot. Because she was ready to take flight and change the world and Harvard was her runway. (She later transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated in 1959 — tied for first in her class.)
Not that the world was eager to be changed.
One of Ginsburg’s Harvard professors, Albert Sacks, recommended her for a position as a law clerk to former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, according to The New York Times, based on her outstanding grades, her work as a law review editor and “her qualities of mind.” Frankfurter never even interviewed her.
Ginsburg didn’t get a single job offer from a New York law firm upon graduation. She told Jane Pauley in a 2016 CBS “Sunday Morning” interview: “I had three strikes against me: One, I was Jewish; two, I was a woman. But the killer was that I was the mother of a 4-year-old child.”
“You graduated first in your class,” Pauley replied. “Didn’t that say something about your ability to be both a mother and the best?”
“It should have,” Ginsburg replied back.
She managed to change the world anyway.
She became the first director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in 1972, where she began her lifelong crusade of dismantling legal barriers to women’s equality.
“The Women’s Rights Project tallied hundreds of federal laws that discriminated on the basis of sex — in education, employment, reproductive rights, mortgages, credit cards, loans, house rentals, prison and the military,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero wrote in his Ginsburg appreciation. “Most legal scholars believed the law should treat women differently, to protect them. For instance, some laws prevented female employees from lifting more than 15 pounds, or working at night. Some lawyers were beginning to take on cases of sex discrimination, often to help a specific woman, not necessarily with a view toward changing the law on gender equality. Ginsburg wanted to do just that.”
And she succeeded, both as a lawyer arguing before the Supreme Court and as an eventual justice — arguing landmark gender discrimination cases, clearing the path for women to join the Virginia Military Institute and becoming the first Supreme Court justice to officiate at a same-sex marriage ceremony.
Along the way, she became an icon and a hero to millions. Young children dressed like her for Halloween. People had her likeness tattooed onto their bodies. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team had an RBG jersey made for her. (“The jersey will be my favorite for the biweekly workouts that keep me in shape,” Ginsburg wrote in her thank you note to the team.)
In researching Ginsburg’s life and accomplishments after she died at age 87 on Friday, I came across this interview with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, during which she recalled her first time arguing before the Supreme Court.
“I did not dare eat anything because I was afraid I wouldn’t keep it down,” she said. “Of course, I was very nervous. I had a first sentence written out, memorized. And then I looked up at the bench and thought, ‘Here are the most important judges in the country, maybe the world, and they have to listen to me. I have a captive audience.’ And suddenly, instead of getting nervous, I had a sense of empowerment. I knew a lot more about gender discrimination than the nine of them did.”
I love that.
I love it especially because we know about the doubts and resentments she encountered trying to enter and excel in her chosen field, despite her clear and ever-present abilities.
I love it that she never let those doubts and resentments infect her thinking to a degree that clouded what she knew: The law. Her worth. The importance of her lens.
Her life and accomplishments are a lesson and an inspiration for anyone who’s ever been made to feel they don’t belong in the room where it happens — where decisions are made, where history is made, where power is brokered and wielded, where the important people sit. For anyone who’s heard, overtly or covertly, “Why are you here? Why are you taking the place of someone who looks like me, thinks like me, lives like me, worships like me, loves like me? Why are you trying to get a piece of the power?”
We owe her tremendously. She protected our freedoms and our paychecks and our bodies and our democracy. She did it eloquently and tirelessly and despite tremendous obstacles.
And she gave us an answer, whenever we need one, to a question that sneaks its way into our heads — because someone put it there or we put it there ourselves: Why are you here?
To change the world for the better. No more, no less.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
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