When Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from law school in 1959, women made up 3% of attorneys in the United States, and there were no female judges on federal appellate courts. The best she could aspire to, the late justice tells us, in one of the seven interviews that make up this timely and inspiring book, was to earn a living as a lawyer, but even that was not an inevitable conclusion. The story of Bader Ginsburg’s rise from one of the nine women in his class at Harvard Law School to Supreme Court Justice and beloved American figure is no less astonishing the more he revisits.
Bader Ginsburg died in September of this year, at the age of 87. This book, marketed as The last interview, is part of a series of compilations of interviews with late thinkers and writers that includes, but is not limited to, James Baldwin, Nora Ephron and Hannah Arendt. It’s a wonderfully comprehensive and non-mediated way to get involved with every issue and be transported back to your first adventures in public life. When we meet Bader Ginsburg, it’s like a 38-year-old man talking to him. New York Times on the occasion of his acceptance of a professorship at Columbia University. The year is 1972 and it is the first time that Columbia has chosen a woman for a full-time position higher than that of a teacher. Reading Bader Ginsburg’s comments is mildly giddy, meeting her as a young woman and seeing, for a second, the entire arc of her life, right up to her death, and an intimacy with justice that a more conventional retrospective might lack. .
You can also see the evolution of a star. In that first interview, Bader Ginsburg displayed many of the qualities that would come to inspire, in his later years, not just respect, but a kind of devotion and fame unusual for someone in his line of work. When he graduated from Columbia Law School and transferred there from Harvard, Bader Ginsburg tied for first in his class, but could not find work for a long time. At first, he tells the reporter, he thought there must be something wrong with her. “But then,” he said, “when I received so many rejections, I thought it couldn’t be that they were of no use to me, it had to be something else.”
No law firm, in 1959, wanted to hire a woman, not even one as brilliant as Bader Ginsburg, and what is telling in her comments about it is that even in 1972, she showed simultaneous softness of tone and utter refusal to be bullied. . that would mark his entire career. “The only thing limiting me is time,” she says, when the journalist asks her how she plans to deal with being the only woman in a men’s college. “I am not going to restrict my activities in any way to please you.”
The tone was, as Bader Ginsburg’s adversaries would discover, misleading. In a 2018 interview with Nina Totenberg at the Sundance Film Festival, she revisits one of the first things she did when she joined Columbia: Far from keeping her head down and avoiding confrontation, she immediately faced the university authorities for firing 25 people. women on staff who worked as servants, while supporting all their male companions. “I went to the vice president of the university,” says Bader Ginsburg, “and I told him the university was violating Title VII.” He replied, “Professor Ginsburg, Columbia has excellent Wall Street attorneys representing you and would you like a cup of tea?”
She didn’t back down. She took her own employers to court and obtained a temporary injunction to protect the women from being fired. Ultimately, Columbia reversed its decision and, faced with public pressure to fire an equal number of men and women, ultimately decided not to fire anyone. As Bader Ginsburg dryly remarked in the interview, “faced with having to leave about 10 men before they got to the first woman, they found a way to avoid firing anyone.”
It was an extraordinarily bold move and the joy of hearing Bader Ginsburg recount this and other ancient battles, many of which I have never heard before, acts as a rallying cry to be a little braver in our own lives. Of course, the big pieces of the scene are also reviewed, including the gruesome early year at Harvard Law School when her husband, Marty, was diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately he survived, but during the year of his treatment, Bader Ginsburg cared for him, raised his daughter, studied for his law degree, and took notes so that Marty would not be left behind in his. Under tremendous pressure, he pushed the entire family to the limit.
It is a virtue of the book that the interviews range from those that focus heavily on his judicial work, to one with, say, a group of high school students, in which Bader Ginsburg is much more playful, to the transcript of an interview she did at a synagogue in Washington DC, in which she talks about the importance of her faith. In the interview with the students, she refers to how, as a child, she dreamed of becoming an opera singer; however, “in my elementary school, they put me with the… they were called sparrows instead of robins, and they told me to articulate the words. So being a great diva was not in the cards for me. “
In another interview, Bader Ginsburg talks about how her son’s school always called her, and never her husband, when there was a problem that required their attendance. She informed them, dryly, that her son had two parents and that they must switch between them with demands. Suddenly, the principal’s office stopped calling. “I suspect,” says Bader Ginsburg, “that the school was reluctant to remove a man from his job; he would not hesitate to call a mother to depart from his; however, there was no rapid change in my son’s behavior, but the calls came only once a semester. And the reason was that they had to think long and hard before asking a man to take time out of his work day to come to school. “
We learn what he thought about the Notorious RBG meme, his friendship with the late Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, how he doesn’t care about wrong decisions, and how he formed his most striking dissenting opinions. As is often the case with interviews, it’s the little human moments that can reveal the most. At the end of Bader Ginsburg’s Sundance conversation, Nina Totenberg, with whom she had been friends for years, tells a story about her. “When my late husband died,” Totenberg says, “and I started dating the doctor I’m now married to, I remember one day I was walking down the hall with Judge Ginsburg and I said, ‘Ruth, I started having doctor appointments. in Boston. And in my mind, I remember his head spinning and what he said was: ‘Details. I want all the details. ‘
• Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Last Interview and Other Conversations is published by Melville House (£ 12.99)
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