Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1933-2020
“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Like many fellow Americans I was heartbroken to learn on Friday evening that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died at age 87. For many reasons, this loss hit American women especially hard. Justice Ginsburg spent her entire career advocating for the rights of women to be treated equally at home and at work. Her legacy can be seen in workplaces around the country where women not only work side-by-side with men, but take on leadership positions. Her legacy can be felt in law firms like Hanna & Plaut, where seven of our eleven attorneys are women. There has been massive progress for women in the legal profession since Ginsburg graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959. Although she graduated at the top of her class and had been editor of the Columbia Law Review as well as the Harvard Law Review, no law firm in the City of New York would hire her. At Harvard, where she was one of only nine women in a class of more than 500, the dean had asked her why she was taking up a place that “should go to a man.”
Ginsburg had two children and her early years in practice also provided a great example for working mothers. This anecdote contained in NPR’s obituary may feel very familiar to women balancing a demanding profession with the demands of parenthood:
During these pioneering years, Ginsburg would often work through the night as she had during law school. But by this time, she had two children, and she later liked to tell a story about the lesson she learned when her son, in grade school, seemed to have a proclivity for getting into trouble.
The scrapes were hardly major, and Ginsburg grew exasperated by demands from school administrators that she come in to discuss her son’s alleged misbehavior. Finally, there came a day when she had had enough. “I had stayed up all night the night before, and I said to the principal, ‘This child has two parents. Please alternate calls.’ ”
After that, she found, the calls were few and far between. It seemed, she said, that most infractions were not worth calling a busy husband about.
The barriers facing women in the profession today are not quite as blatant as they once were but they still exist and it has always been inspirational for me to look to Ginsburg as a role model. When a client complained that I should not take the lead in preparing his case for trial because he needed “someone he could go to war with,” I looked to The Notorious RBG for inspiration. Of course, I am not alone. Her loss is a blow to all of us.
In the coming days the political ramifications of Ginsburg’s death will dominate the headlines. I hope that we can take some time to celebrate her accomplishments and the contributions she made to the advancement of women in leadership and in the legal profession.
May her memory be a blessing.