No matter what your politics, it’s worth getting to know Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor. While Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg is the subject of the new documentary RBG, a book about both women, SISTERS IN LAW, was published in 2015 and landed on top of my reading pile about a year ago. When I went to see RBG last week, the book was still fresh in my mind, as was the woman who told her husband, “That’s one movie [RBG] I never want to see.”
I didn’t know the couple, but we’d just had a friendly film-related conversation in the lobby of a Dallas-area theater. As I walked away, the woman stopped in front of a poster for RBG–not yet released–and passed judgment.
So this is what I would have liked to say to her–a fellow American of similar age, like me a woman who looked like she was doing better than just “okay”. This is what I might’ve said if my friend hadn’t dragged me away, afraid we’d be late to our movie:
I’d go see a documentary about Sandra Day O’Connor in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you? Not long ago I read a book called SISTERS IN LAW; since then, it’s impossible for me to imagine any woman applauding the life of the first female Supreme Court Justice and ignoring the contributions of the second. Or vice versa. Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have nothing and everything in common. Their politics are different. And their religions. And the way they grew up. They both graduated from elite colleges and law schools, but on opposite coasts. While one was a great cook, the other was so bad that her husband took charge of the kitchen. Like the rest of us, they were once girls who weren’t sure what they wanted to be when they grew up. When they decided to become lawyers, it was at a time when women in the law were a nonexistent force. They assumed that didn’t mean they wouldn’t find work as lawyers, but that’s exactly what it meant. Nobody wanted to hire either of them, even though they’d both graduated at the top of their class. They had that in common. And the fact that neither was a quitter. When men–sometimes powerful and brilliant men–doubted them, they never doubted themselves. By the time they were tapped for the Supreme Court, O’Connor in 1981 and Ginsburg in 1993, they were ready and able. Both women had risen out of uncharted waters, and, for the next twelve years, until Justice O’Connor retired in 2006, they owned two of the nine seats that had for so long been the dominion of men.
“It was okay to be first. But I did not want to be the last.” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
Together they were stronger, even if one Justice was a gung-ho conservative Republican and the other a soft-spoken but determined liberal Democrat. They’d both been through the Women’s School of Hard Knocks. As women, they cared about improving the lives of other women. As two female Justices, they were able to have twice as much impact–and they were in a unique position to help the male Justices see gender issues in a new light. The women weren’t best of friends, but neither were they mean-girl competitors. In author Hirshman’s words, they “hit the sweet spot of affectionate alliance.”
Before there were two, there was only Justice O’Connor. (She’d been serving as an Arizona state judge when she was tapped by President Reagan) One of the her first cases was Hogan v. Mississippi. Hogan was a young man who wanted to attend nursing school at the oldest women-only college in the state. A lower court had ruled that he must be admitted. Mississippi wanted it overturned. When the Supreme Court heard the case, it was O’Connor who cast the deciding swing vote. In her written opinion, she warned that stereotyping nursing as women’s work harms women. She referenced officials of the American Nurses Association who had suggested that nurses’ wages had been depressed by excluding men from the profession.
Sandra Day grew up on a remote cattle ranch in Arizona. When she turned six, her parents sent her to live with her grandmother in El Paso, TX, during the school year. She loved the ranch and adored and emulated her independent-minded, can-do-anything father, but she was also a brilliant student who was admitted to Stanford University at sixteen. Stanford was where her father was headed when his own father died and he was called home to save the ranch. Sandra decided to stay on at Stanford for law school and finished the three years in two. It was there she met her husband, John Jay O’Connor. They settled in Phoenix, where they raised three sons while managing separate careers and a busy Republican-connected social life. When the Justice stepped down from the Supreme Court after serving for twenty-five years, she did it to spend more time with her husband. He had Alzheimer’s.
From 1973 to 1980, Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued six landmark cases in front of the Supreme Court and won five. At the time she was the chief litigator for the ACLU on the Women’s Rights Project (and also a law professor at Columbia.) As a young law professor at Rutgers University in the 1960s, she became something of an expert on Women and the Law. Her female students had asked her to teach a seminar on the subject, and her long hours spent preparing for it in the law library were illuminating. In many states, women weren’t allowed or required to serve on juries. If they didn’t serve, Ginsburg reasoned, they would never be judged by juries of their peers. Another thing women weren’t allowed to do: tend bar. As for pregnancy? That could get a working woman demoted or fired. Ginsburg had learned that lesson fresh out of college. Married and pregnant, she had a promotion rescinded. When she found herself expecting again while teaching at Rutgers, she concealed it with larger clothes out of fear of losing her job. And then there were all the women who were paid less than men for doing the same job. That had happened to Ginsburg, too.
For the Women’s Rights Project, she chose her cases like a great surgeon wielding a scalpel. Her end game was to persuade the Supreme Court to “treat sex distinctions like race–something people are born with and which should not determine their fates.” (Hirshman)
“A gender line. . .helps to keep women not on a pedestal, but in a cage.”
“It is not women’s lib. It is women’s and men’s liberation.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The Equal Rights Amendment, first proposed in 1921, would have accomplished what she wanted, but Ginsburg couldn’t count on it becoming law. She’d lobbied unsuccessfully for passage of the ERA in the 1960s, and even when it passed Congress in 1972, it faced an uncertain future: 38 states had to ratify it.
In 1980, President Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. She and her husband Marty, a prominent tax attorney in Manhattan, packed up their things and moved to Washington. Thirteen years later, President Clinton tapped her for the Supreme Court. In those intervening years, Justice O’Connor hired more law clerks from Judge Ginsburg’s chambers than from any other source. At her confirmation hearing, Ginsburg told the Senators, “What has become of me could only happen in America.”
Ruth grew up in a modest home in Brooklyn. Neither of her parents had gone to college. Ruth’s father, a Russian immigrant, worked in the garment business. Ruth was very close to her mother, who gave her two pieces of advice: be a lady, and be independent. Ruth became a top student, but she lost her mother to cancer the day before her high school graduation. With scholarships and money her mother had squirreled away, Ruth went off to Cornell and met her future husband. She said he was the only man at Cornell who appreciated she had a brain. (In fairness to the men, she was only 17 and the men weren’t much older.) And so began, by all accounts, one of the great love stories. Marty was a year ahead and they married as soon as she graduated. He was in his third year of Harvard Law School when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. At the time it was pretty much a death sentence. Ruth was in her second year at Harvard Law, on the Law Review, and caring for their baby daughter. Ruth kept everyone going. Marty beat the cancer, got his degree and accepted a job in NYC. Ruth transferred to Columbia Law School and graduated first in her class. Until he died in 2010, her husband remained her biggest cheerleader.
Justice Ginsburg, now 85, has weighed in on the many cases the Supreme Court has heard during her long tenure. Justice O’Connor was still there when they both voted that VMI, an all-male, state-funded military college in Virginia would have to start admitting qualified women who wanted to attend. Justice Ginsburg was there for the landmark ruling in 2015 that decided same-sex marriages in all 50 states should be legal. But the Justice also knows how to use a dissent. A woman named Lilly Ledbetter had been a production supervisor for Goodyear Tire & Rubber for almost 20 years when she found out she’d been being paid less than her male counterparts for all that time. She sued and the Court decided 5-4 in favor of the company on a technicality. Ginsberg wrote the dissenting opinion and decided she should also read it from the bench. Then she pressed Congress to amend the clause. Two years later, in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed into law by President Obama.
Looking back on the careers of Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg, it’s hard to imagine all the people who didn’t want to hire them:
WHO’D WANT TO HIRE A WOMAN?
- not the 40 law firms looking for Stanford grads. One firm was willing to hire Sandra as a legal secretary. She said no, and offered to work for free as an attorney for San Mateo County, CA, until they found some money in the budget. (Eventually she got paid.) When law firms in Phoenix wouldn’t hire her, she opened her own practice. When she decided to try politics, she entered the Arizona state legislature through the back door by offering to fill a vacant senate seat. Three years later she was elected majority leader, a first for an American woman.
- not the major NYC law firm where Ruth was a summer intern; not the Supreme Court Justices and not top federal appeals court judges looking for brilliant, newly-minted lawyers to clerk for them. Ruth came highly recommended by her professors, not to mention she was in the Law Review at Harvard and at Columbia, where she graduated first in her class. Finally, a judge on the lowest rung of the federal court system agreed to hire her–and later sang her praises.
Looking back on the accomplishments of Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg, it’s hard to believe how many Americans dislike one or the other, depending on whether they lean red or blue. Whenever the nine Justices meet up at Court (Justice Ginsberg explains in the film RBG), the first thing they do is mingle and shake each other’s hands. Sounds civil. Sounds nice. I first read the book SISTERS IN LAW because a woman in my Book Club chose it. Our group is made up of different shades of liberal and conservative, and each and everyone of us loved the book. A fiction writer friend who’s also a lawyer told me her very conservative lawyer friend invited her to see RBG, and they both loved the film.
Love, respect, civil discourse: I’d like a second helping of that.