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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg In Conversation

Brooklyn-born Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States. She is also the first Justice to become a global pop-culture icon widely known as the Notorious RBG. She sits down with NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg to discuss her quarter century on the nation’s highest bench & her continuing commitment to principled dissent.

AIRED: January 02, 2019 | 0:56:46

>> From the Museum of the

City Of New York's David Berg

Distinguished Speakers Series...

>> For women of my generation,

getting the first job

was the big hurdle.

>> ...Supreme Court Justice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg joins

NPR correspondent

Nina Totenberg in conversation.

>> Can this institution

really stay away

from the political fray?

>> For one thing, we are by far

the most collegial institute in


We all respect and even

genuinely like each other.

>> This program was made

possible by viewers like you.

[ Applause ]

>> Thank you.

>> Okay.

Everyone please be seated.

>> So, I'm going to start out

by asking you the question

that probably -- oh, I don't

know -- 70% of America

wants to know the answer to.

That would be the 70% who've

offered you their body parts and

organs in case you needed them.

[ Laughter ]

How's your health?

>> It's fine, thank you.

>> And those ribs you busted?

>> Almost repaired.

>> [ Chuckles ] That's good.

[ Cheers and applause ]

And have you gone back

to your trainer,

Bryant --

>> Yes.

We went back immediately after

the fall.

We could do legs only.

But, yesterday, we did the whole


>> The whole routine?

>> Yes.

>> The whole routine that most

35-year-olds can't do when they

would go and see if they could

just do that routine.

So, the other thing that people

want to know is how are things

at the Supreme Court these days.

[ Laughter ]

>> We've successfully completed

three rounds, as you well know,

since you cover us.

And now we are in recess

until January 7th.

>> So, I know that the justices

are anxious to demonstrate that

the court is not a political

institution, although Lord knows

you have your ideological

differences, which are different

from political or partisan


But is that possible

that you can be

an apolitical institution

in the current milieu?

>> Nina, you've been covering us

for how many years?

>> I'm taking the Fifth.

>> And you know the press

is much more interested

in disagreement than agreement.

But, in fact, we agree, at least

on the bottom-line judgment,

twice as often as we divide 5-4.

So there's much more agreement

than disagreement.

>> Of course, the 5-4's are the

most visible, usually the most

visible cases -- not always.

There are some cases in which

the court is unanimous, where

those of us known as "court

observers" [Chuckles] I guess

are surprised -- like some of

the search cases in the last few

years involving various

electronic things.

>> And Guantánamo Bay, going

back a while -- that was a

lopsided majority.

>> Yes, and Guantánamo Bay was a

lopsided majority, but that

seems somehow like aeons ago.

[ Laughs ]

So, can this institution really

stay away from the political

fray and do its job without

reference to politics?

>> Without reference to politics

as we ordinarily see it in the

executive branch and in


For one thing, we are by far the

most collegial institute in


[ Laughter ]

We all respect and even

genuinely like each other.

I think you can see that in so

many ways, all the things that

we do together.

In January, there will be a

dinner in honor of the new

junior justice.

That's a tradition.

The person who has just given up

the job of being the junior

justice makes a dinner for the

latest arrival.

>> When Justice Kennedy left the

court, he said that every one of

his colleagues had independently

come to him, liberals and

conservatives, and asked him not

to retire.

Why is that?

Why did everyone want him to

stay, since he was undoubtedly a

thorn in the sides of some of

you, you know, at some point?

When you're the so-called "swing

justice" and your vote often

determines the outcome, you

disappoint people on a regular


So why did people want him to


And how is the court different

without him?

What is there missing without


>> The court is always different

when we get a new member.

Justice Kennedy was a true


There was no one more courteous.

And he was...

I think he was somebody

who encouraged civility

in our relations.

I never heard an angry word

spoken by Justice Kennedy.

And he had a quality

that I think is good for anyone

in the business of judging,

and that was humility.

And he would tell the story

I don't know how many times

about how he was number --

what, three pick?

>> Mm-hmm.

>> For...

>> Yeah, two went by the wayside

before President Reagan

got to him.

>> Right.

>> The Museum of the

City of New York

is dedicated to this city,

what makes it perhaps the most

vibrant city in the world,

and what makes it tick,

from the Financial District

to the Bowery.

So I thought I'd start

in the New York portion

of this interview

by asking you if you,

after living in Washington

for, I guess, nigh on to 40


do you still consider yourself

a New Yorker?

>> And not only a New Yorker

but a Brooklynite.

[ Laughter, applause ]

You know, when I left

New York to come to D.C.,

I thought there was no other

city in the world for me

but this one.

But inside of six months,

I found many treasures in D.C.,

including all the museums that

are free and the concerts that

are free.

But my daughter made a comment.

She said, "If you had moved

when you were in your 30s

rather than in your late 40s,

you might not have been

so content with the change."

>> So, what is it you miss

about New York?

>> Well, the tremendous variety.

Anything you want you can find

in this city --

the greatest museums,

the Metropolitan Opera.

I love the Washington National

Opera, but I don't think the Met

has any rival in the world.

>> Do you come back to go

to the Metropolitan Opera

and to go see certain exhibits,

or what do you come --

When you're actually going to

come back to New York

to do something,

not to visit somebody,

but to see something or hear

something, what brings you back?

>> I've gone to the Met

every five years

on a notable birthday,

so starting with my 70th,

75th, 80th, 85th.

And I get Peter Gelb's box.

[ Laughter ]

And my children attend.

And it's a fantastic evening.

But, mostly, if I'm in the city,

it's to speak at a law school.

There are very many law schools

in the city.

I try to get around

to all of them.

>> You grew up in Brooklyn

in the '30s and '40s, in


I don't actually know

what Flatbush is like today.

But what was Flatbush

like back then?

>> If I can speak of

the neighborhood I grew up in...

for people who know Brooklyn,

it was East 9th Street,

between Avenue O and Avenue P.

It was typical of Brooklyn


There were about an equal number

of Irish, Italian, and Jews --

just like the ticket for running

for office in New York,

it had to be an Italian,

an Irish, and a Jew.

>> And you went to

public school.

What public school did you go


>> P.S. 238,

and then to James Madison

High School.

>> Where you were a famous --

this is going to be the great

trivia question you will be able

to put to your friends --

baton twirler.

[ Laughter ]

>> I don't know how famous I

was, but it did lead me

to stay away from football games

for the rest of my life.

[ Laughter ]

>> Cold I guess, wearing

those little costumes, even


So, who were your --

You went to public schools.

Were your friends mainly Jewish

girls or not Jewish girls?

I mean, who who were your


>> My best friend, we were

in grade school together.

Her name was Marilyn DeLuteo,

and I was very sorry

when she went to parochial

school for high school.

I suppose I was envious, too,

because she had

all these saints.

[ Laughter ]

And all I had was this one God.

[ Laughter ]

>> Could you expound

on that a little more?

What did the saints do for her?

>> Two things.

First, confession.

She did something bad, she would

confess, and it was over, and


[ Laughter ]

But for the Jews, there's only

that one day, Yom Kippur.

[ Laughter ]

>> And, also, you must have had

a Jewish mother who was like

my Jewish mother, who was

probably pretty good at the

guilt trip that lasted.

>> No, my mother never made me

feel guilty about anything.

>> No?

>> No.

>> What a very nice mom.

>> Though she had very high

standards for me.

So the one time I came home

with less than an A,

she made it clear to me that she

never wanted to see that again.

[ Laughter ]

>> But you did flunk one course.

>> In?

[ Laughter ]

>> Penmanship?

>> Oh, yes.

Oh, that was in the first grade.

[ Laughter ]

And that was because I'm

left-handed and the teacher

wanted to persuade me

to use my right hand...

not the way my mother

was trained out

of using her left hand,

by being rapped on the knuckles.

This was a more gentle

form of persuasion.

So I tried to write

our penmanship exam

with my right hand,

and I got a D.

And I said, "Never again."

[ Both laugh ]

And I have been left-handed

ever since.

[ Cheers and applause ]

>> [ Chuckles ]

So, this neighborhood that

was one third, one third, one

third -- basically just like

the political tickets --

what did you sort of gain out of

that in terms of seeing

very different cultures?

>> We got along very well

with each other.

I will say there

that there were

almost no African-Americans

either in my public school

or in my high school.

That's different.

If you go to those same

neighborhoods today,

that would not be the case.

>> Do you think you aware

of that then, that absence?

>> As a kid

growing up in Brooklyn,

certainly, because one of

the highlights of those years

was Jackie Robinson.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> The excitement

that that generated.

But there was another

Jackie Robinson for me --

a man named Dean Dixon.

He was a conductor,

and, in the '40s, he had

a youth orchestra

with children from the city,

and he also

put on operas in high schools.

And my aunt, who was a


teacher, took me

to one of these performances,

an unlikely first opera --

it was "La Gioconda" --

but I was blown away by it,

by the glorious music

and the drama.

This man Dean Dixon

was conducting in the

United States in the '40s.

He left at the end of the '40s.

And he said, "For all the years

I've been conducting in New York

and other places in the States,

no one has ever

called me maestro."

[ Spectators murmur ]

So he left.

He had a flourishing career

in Europe.

He came back to the

United States to visit in the

late '60s.

And then every major symphony

orchestra wanted Dean Dixon

to be its guest conductor.

>> Mm.

>> And it's an example, I think

a graphic example, of the change

in the United States

from the '40s to the late '60s.

>> Did you have a favorite


>> I had favoriteteachers --

Ms. Murphy, who was the

conductor of P.S. 238's

orchestra, where I played the


and then Mr. Barnett, who was

the conductor of the

James Madison High School

Orchestra, where I played the


>> So you were bi-instrumental.

[ Laughter ]

>> Because I couldn't be in the

orchestra with the piano,

so I learned the cello -- which

Nina has a world-class violinist

as a father, and so she knows

that it's a lot easier to get

a decent sound out of a cello

than out of a violin early on.

>> It's even easier to get one

out of a piano.

[ Laughter ]

Because you can't make it sharp

or flat.

If you at least hit the key

right, you're partway home.

So, how did you learn?

Your mother wanted you

to learn to play the piano, yes?

>> Yes, and I suppose I did,


>> And where did you study?

Where did you learn to play

the piano and the cello?

>> The piano from a teacher

on West 73rd Street.

I took the BMT to New York

and then ended up on the IRT

72nd Street stop.

There's a soundproof building --

many musicians had their studios

and their apartments there.

So I would go once a week

to Manhattan

for my piano lessons.

And then sometimes,

if I had the afternoon free,

I'd go across the street

to the Thalia Theatre,

which I think still exists.

The automat was my favorite

place for lunch.

>> They used to always advertise

the automat on the radio

when I was a little girl,

and it sounded so wonderful.

And then I finally got to one,

and I think I got a piece of pie

that had been there

forever, and it [Laughs]

wasn't as wonderful

as I had been led to believe.

How do you think that

the friendships that you made

in your neighborhood

and in your school

and the way life was in your

neighborhood, how do you think

that influenced your values

and even your life afterwards?

>> Well, I'd say

the overwhelming influence

growing up in the '40s

was World War II.

It was a war unlike

our recent wars,

where there was a right side

and a wrong side.

There was nothing ambiguous

about it.

It was frightening because

we came to know more

and more what was happening

to the Jews in Europe.

>> And it lasted a long time.

>> Yes.

Not as long as the current.

>> Yes, right.

But for a war where everybody

was conscripted in some way

or other,

whether it was rationing...

It was not like...

>> It was rationing gasoline,


In school,

we all peeled the tinfoil

off our gum wrappers

to make tinfoil balls.

We had a victory garden

in our public school.

We knit squares,

and they were supposed to be

combined into quilts.

What else did we do?

Oh, savings bonds.

We would use

part of our allowance

to buy saving stamps,

and when the book was filled,

we got a savings bond.

>> So, your mother was

the dominant force

in your young life --

and I'm going to get to that

in a minute --

but I want to talk to you about

your father,

about whom I, who have known you

for many, many decades, know

really close to nothing.

He was an immigrant.

I have intuited

that he was somewhat depressed.

Neither of your parents

went to college.

So tell us something

about your father

and what...

and why he was depressed.

>> Well, he didn't talk much

about his early years.

He was 13 when he came

to the United States

and went immediately to work.

He went to school at night

for English.

I think he was not depressed

in the early years of his


But I had a sister

I never knew, because I was

about a year-and-a-half old when

she died, when she died of

meningitis, and that was

devastating to both of my


I don't think they ever got over


>> And he emigrated from


>> Well, he thought it was

Russia, but it was a

place outside Odessa, so it

would be today identified as


>> Mm-hmm.

Your mother died of cancer

when you were 17,

just before you were to graduate

from high school

as a valedictorian.

But, until then, she was just


she poured everything she had

into you,

introducing you to every aspect

of the city that she could.

So could you talk a bit

about the places

that she took you and the world

that she introduced you to?

>> My dream place in Brooklyn

was the Brooklyn Academy

of Music.

My mother had a series

of children's plays

on Saturday afternoon, and I

still remember my favorite.

It was called

"Mrs. Wiggle Bee of

Cabbage Patch."

[ Laughter ]

But then, when I was older,

the first time I ever saw

the film "Henry V,"

with Laurence Olivier, was at

the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

>> How old were you then?

>> I was in high school then.

I must have been about...

>> Hmm?

>> I must have been about 14.

>> Did you understand it?

>> Did I understand it?

>> Mm-hmm.

>> What was not to understand?

[ Laughter ]

>> Well, I probably wouldn't

have understood it so...

[ Laughter ]

>> But I should say

other favorite places --

Prospect Park,

the zoo,

the botanical garden.

>> So you got out a lot.

>> And one place we went very

often was the Brooklyn Museum.

We'd go on excursions

from school.

And I'm glad to know that

that museum is still thriving.

>> So, do you remember any

exhibits that really touched you

or thrilled you or excited you?

>> Well, I will admit

that my favorite museum place

was the Metropolitan Museum


[ Chuckles ]

...the place where they had

the mummies.

[ Laughter ]

>> It's pretty amazing when

you see those for the first

time -- or the second or the

third, for that matter.

>> So the Metropolitan Museum,

I guess, is a rival in art

for the Metropolitan Opera

in opera.

>> So, what did your mother want

for you and especially

what did she want for you

thatshe could not have?

>> Well, she wanted me,

first of all, to go to college.

And then she thought,

because I liked history,

that if I would become

a high-school history

teacher, that would be

a satisfying career.

She never in her wildest dreams

thought about the law.

That would be impractical

because, at that time, women

were less than 3%

of the lawyers in the country.

>> Do you remember what was

the first inkling that you had

that women were treated

differently from men,

seriously differently from men,

to their disadvantage

differently from men?

>> I don't remember one

particular moment

when that came home to me.

I guess I realized it in stages.

For one thing, I went

to Cornell University,

which in the arts college

then had a four-to-one ratio,

four men to every woman,

which meant that the women were

ever so much smarter

than the men.

[ Laughter ]

But too many of them

disguised their intelligence

because they thought the highest

degree that they could get

was their "Mrs. degree."

>> And you worked very hard,

but you hid it.

You did not study out

in the open, so to speak.

>> No, I found every restroom,

every women's bathroom

[Chuckles] in Cornell.

The one in the architecture

school was by far the best.

So I would study there.

When I went back to the dorm,

then I could be just like

one of the girls.

>> A social butterfly

in the dorm, but you had

to do the work somewhere, yeah?

>> I didn't have to -- Iwanted


>> At Cornell, who was the

professor who was your most

unlikely dispenser of learning?

>> Well, there were two at


One was Robert E. Cushman, who

taught constitutional law,

and the other was

Vladimir Nabokov,

who taught European literature.

>> And he taught you about

writing and words and...

>> Yes.

He was a man in love with

the sound of words like


[ Laughter ]

>> Now, Robert Cushman

played a role in your deciding

that you might want to become

a lawyer, right?

>> Yes.

I thank him to this day.

I was working as a research

assistant for Professor Cushman.

I was also taking

his constitutional-law class.

This was in the early '50s.

And this great teacher

wanted me to understand

that our country was straying

from its most important values.

That is -- This is the heyday

of Senator Joseph McCarthy

from Wisconsin,

who saw a communist

on every corner

and was calling people

to account, many of them

in the entertainment industry.

They were coming

before the House Un-American

Activities Committee

or one of the Senate

investigating committees

and being quizzed

about some organization

they belonged to in their youth

at the height of the Depression,

some socialist organization.

And Cushman wanted me

to appreciate

that there were lawyers

standing up for these people

and reminding our government

that we have a First Amendment

that guarantees us

the right to think,

speak, and write as we believe

and not as Big Brother

government tells us

is the right way to think,

speak, and write --

and reminding the government,

as well, that there was

a Fifth Amendment

that protects us against


So I got the idea that being a

lawyer was a pretty nifty thing.

You know, I thought you could

earn a living, but you could

also use your time and talent

to do something that will make

the world a little bit better,

that we'll get over

these bad patches.

I must say that there was some

reluctance on my family's part,

being practical,

in knowing that women weren't

really wanted by the law.

But when I got married,

that settled that problem

because then the attitude was,

well, "If Ruth wants to be

a lawyer, that's okay.

If she fails, she will have

a husband to support her."

[ Laughter ]

>> But your father-in-law

was very supportive when you...

I should just interject here

that Marty Ginsburg,

your husband, was a year ahead

of you, and when you graduated,

he was drafted,

and you went to Fort Sill,

Oklahoma for two years.

And if we have time, I'll ask

you a few questions about that,

but by the time you both

returned to

Harvard Law School -- he a year

ahead of you and you were

starting -- you had an


>> 14 months.

>> 14-month-old daughter.

God forbid. I made a mistake.

[ Laughter ]

And you were worried about

whether you could do it all, and

your father-in-law, Marty's

father, was actually...

You could tell the story better

than I could.

>> Tremendously supportive


He said, "Ruth, if you don't

want to go to law school, you

have the best reason in the

world and no one will think

the less of you.

But if youreally want to go

to law school and become a

lawyer, well, stop feeling sorry

for yourself, and you will find

a way."

That advice has stood me

in good stead my entire life.

The question is do

I want this enough.

If the answer is yes,

I find a way.

[ Spectators murmur ]

>> When you think

about your life

as a New Yorker up until

the time you went to Washington,

are there particular artists

or political leaders

or activists

that influenced your thinking

or who you are over

the course of time?

>> Well...

The writers -- I think

every girl of my age read and

loved "A Tree Grows in


>> Mm-hmm.

>> Then there was that kind

of risqué, nasty-boy book,

J.D. Salinger's

"Catcher in the Rye."

[ Laughter ]

And another person that I found

inspiring was Eleanor Roosevelt,

who wrote a column

in theBrooklyn Eagle, "My Day."

It was syndicated, and it

appeared regularly in the

Brooklyn Eagle.

An artist who inspired me --

I mentioned Dean Dixon.

I'm just reading

his biography now.

It's a conductor -- another

conductor has finally written


It deserves -- He deserves a


But he was a person

who certainly changed my life,

introducing me

to such wonderful music.

>> And what about artists?

I mean

your taste in artwork is...

I don't know that I would

call it avant-garde but...

>> Compared to what?

Compared to what my colleagues

have on their walls?

>> Yes, compared to what your

colleagues have on their walls,

for sure.

[ Laughter ]

For sure.

I mean, the justices of the

Supreme Court are allowed to

pick artwork from the

Smithsonian that's not in the

main exhibit halls and to hang

it on their walls.

>> Two from the

National Gallery and five from

the Museum of American Art,

which is a Smithsonian museum.

>> So, what's on your walls?

>> So, I have two early

Rothko's from the

National Gallery.

And then I have five

from the Museum of American Art,

including two Josef Albers.

The Museum of American Art

has something called

the Frost Collection.

These are painters in the

United States in the Depression,

running from roughly 1931,

'32 to 1945.

>> So, you've told us what your

first opera was and how you got

introduced into opera.

Now, would you describe

how you introduced your daughter

Jane to opera and what happened?

>> In the wrong way at first.

She was 4 years old.

[ Laughter ]

I took her to the Amato Opera.

It was an amateur opera company

in Manhattan.

It was an abbreviated version

of "Trovatore."

When the soprano began singing,

this small child stood up

and screamed

at the top of her lungs

because that's what the soprano

sounded like to her.

[ Laughter ]

So I ushered her out of there

quickly and decided

it was a little premature.

[ Laughter ]

So we waited

until she was 8,

and we chose "Cosi fan tutte"

at the Met.

It was an English translation.

>> Oh, good.

[ Laughs ]

>> And we played

the recordings for months

before the great evening.

I sat down with the libretto

with her, and by the time she

came to the performance,

she knew most of the words.

We sat in the first row

of the family circle

so she wouldn't have any heads

to look over.

We got her a velvet jumper,

patent-leather shoes,

and it worked.

[ Laughter ]

>> There is a new movie called

"On the Basis of Sex,"

and it's about your first

gender-discrimination case.

And when I was at the screening,

watching you,

in the course of this movie,

get turned down by one law firm

after another, big, small,

and medium in New York City,

I couldn't help but wonder what

your career would have been like

if just one of those law firms

had actually hired you.

>> I know what it would

have been like.

It's as

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor


She was a few years ahead of me

in law school.

She was very high in her class

at Stanford.

No one would offer her a job

as a lawyer.

So she volunteered her services

free to a county attorney

and said, "I'll work for you

for four months.

If, at the end of that period,

you think

I'm worth it, you can put me

on the payroll."

That's how she got

her first job in the law.

But she said, "Ruth, you know,

if we had gone

to a large law firm, you know

where we would be today?

Today we would be

retired partners."

[ Laughter ]

"And because that opportunity

wasn't open to us,

look where we ended up."

[ Laughter, applause ]

>> So, let's talk

for a few minutes about

your early professional life.

I think most people probably

don't know

that you learned Swedish

so you could be the research

assistant for who?

And why?

>> It was the Columbia Law

School Project on International


Part of that project

was to do studies

of European legal systems.

So there was one book

about the Italian legal system,

another the French.

And those were well underway

when they decided to do Sweden

because Sweden had adopted

a new code of procedure

in which they tried

to incorporate

what they saw as the best

of the Anglo-American system.

So it had been in operation

long enough

to see how it was working out.

So I spent a lot of time in

Sweden in '62 and '63 on that


>> And you had to learn Swedish.

>> Yes, well, I can read old


I can read the Swedish law codes

[Laughs] better than a

modern novel.

>> [ Laughs ]

So, you were first in your

class at Harvard Law School.

>> No, I was not.

>> Well, you never graduated

from Harvard Law School, but

when you left, you were first in

your class.

>> I would say I was about fifth

or sixth at Harvard.

>> And you were on

theLaw Review

and then tied, I guess, for

first in your class when you

graduated from Columbia.

And if you all will go see

"On the Basis of Sex," you will

learn all about all of this.

And you were recommended

for a Supreme Court clerkship,

I think, with

Justice Frankfurter, who didn't

even give you an interview.

You finally did get

a clerkship with the help

of one of your professors,

Jerry Gunther,

with a...

Well, you tell us the story.

It's a fascinating tale.

>> Professor Gunther was

in charge of getting clerkships

for Columbia Law students.

And he vowed he would find

a place for me.

I think he called every judge

in the Southern District

of New York and the

Eastern District of New York,

all of the Second Circuit


and there were no bidders.

So he called back one of them

who was a Columbia College

and Law School graduate,

Judge Edmund L. Palmieri.

And Palmieri said,

"Her record is fine, but she has

a 4-year-old daughter,

and sometimes we have to work

on Saturday, even on a Sunday."

So Gunther's response was,

"Give her a chance.

And if she doesn't work out,

there's a young man in her class

who is going to a downtown firm,

and he will jump in

and take over."

So that was the carrot.

There was also a stick,

and the stick was,

"And if you don't give her

a chance, I will never recommend

another Columbia Law student

to you."

>> It worked out.

>> It worked out very well.

[ Laughter ]

For women of my generation,

getting the first job

was the big hurdle.

The woman who got the first job

generally did at least

as well as the men,

so the second job

was not the same hurdle.

>> Mm.

There's another story

that you tell,

one of my favorites,

about the pressures placed

on women in the workplace

then -- as now, to some

extent -- and it involves your

sometimes-errant son James,

whose daughter Mimi

is at NYU now.

>> And is in this audience.

>> And is in the audience


But James was not the most

behaviorally perfect child.

Let's put it that way.

[ Laughter ]

>> That's a euphemism.

I called him lively.

His teachers called him


>> [ Laughs ]

So, you used

to get calls frequently.

>> Yes.

At least once a month --

"Come down to the school

and let us tell you about

your son's latest escapade."

[ Laughter ]

Well, one day, I was in my

office at Columbia

and feeling particularly weary

because I'd been up all night

writing a brief.

I said,

"This child has two parents.

Please alternate calls."

[ Laughter, applause ]

"And it's his father's turn."

So Marty was called.

He went down to the school.

"What did James do?"

"Your son stole the elevator."

It was one of these handheld

elevators and the operator

had gone out for a smoke,

and James was dared

by one of his classmates

to take the kindergarten class

up to the top floor.

[ Laughter ]

Got to the top floor and

was greeted by

three stone faces.

So when Marty was confronted

with this,

"Your son stole the elevator,"

his response was,

"How far could he take it?"

[ Laughter ]

So I don't know if it was

Marty's sense of humor

or the reluctance of the school

to take a man away

from his work --

there was no quick change

in my son's behavior,

but I got called

barely once a semester.

[ Laughter ]

>> People who know you well see

you as a special kind of

feminist -- a little shy and

retiring on the one hand

and unyielding on the other.

And I would note here

for the record that, although

you were a star professor

at Rutgers,

you joined an equal-pay lawsuit

against the school

while you were there.

And when you were a professor

at Columbia, you joined another

sex-discrimination class action,

not to mention the fact

that you weighed in

when the university tried

to lay off 25 maids

in order to save money

but not one janitor.

So my question is how did you

take on all of these employers

without totally alienating them?

>> At Rutgers, there was

a very kindly dean.

I was engaged in 1963,

the very year the

Equal Pay Act passed.

But the message

hadn't gotten home.

So this kindly dean said,

"You will have to take

a substantial cut in salary."

I said, "I expect that.

Rutgers is a state university."

But when he told me how much,

I asked, "Well, what do you

pay so and so," a man

who had been out of law school

about the same amount of time.

He said, "Ruth, he has a wife

and two children to support

and your husband has a

good-paying job in New York."

That's the way it was.

Well, the women at

Rutgers-Newark brought an

equal-pay claim.

It settled finally in 1969,

and the lowest raise

that any woman got

was $6,000,

which in those days...

>> Was a lot of money.

>> Yes.

>> A very lot of money.

>> Then at Columbia, with

the maids/janitor controversy --

So, Columbia laid off 25

maids -- many of them had been

working there for years and

years -- and not a single


A feminist friend came to me

and said, "You're brand new

at Columbia Law School.

This is what Columbia did.

What are you going to do

about it?"

So I went to the vice president

in charge of business

and told him that Columbia

was violating Title VII.

And he said, "Dear, we have

very good council, and

would you like a cup of tea?"

[ Laughter ]

>> Ouf.

>> With that, on the Friday,

there was a press conference.

People who were there -- there

was Bella Abzug, Susan Sontag.

On Monday was a hearing on

the temporary restraining order.

The EEOC, the Equal Employment

Opportunities Commission,

sent out its chief counsel

to argue it.

The union switched sides.

It finally dawned on them

that they had a group

that they had never organized,

that they could organize --

the women.

So Columbia was startled.

After all, they had signed

a contract with the union

and the union had insisted

on separate seniority lines

so that the janitors

would come ahead of the maids.

But the union then saw the light

and said,

"Well, we couldn't possibly

defend a contract

that violates Title VII."

There was Columbia all by


>> Mm.

[ Chuckles ]

>> I guess the hardest

for my colleagues to take

was the pension case.

And TIAA-CREF, as all insurers

did, had separate seniority


Because on the average, women

do live longer than men.

But there are many women

who die early and many men who

live long, and the whole idea of

this is you treat people as

individuals, not lump them

together --

"This is the way women are,

this is the way men are."

The prediction was that the men

would flee from TIAA-CREF

if they had to combine

the tables,

the longevity tables.

None of that happened.

TIAA-CREF is flourishing today.

But that class action

had a hundred named plaintiffs,

women from all over the


the precious few who had

tenured positions

and a group of administrators.

>> And you prevailed.

>> Yes. Of course.

[ Laughter ]

>> Did they settle, or did

it go to trial?

>> There was a case that went

to the Supreme Court.

It was from California.

And the Supreme Court said,

"Yeah, you have to treat

the women the same as the men."

And that that did it.

And so all of the other cases


>> So...

I'm going to take you back to

your days at Harvard Law School,


I will allude again to the



Marty was diagnosed

with testicular cancer,

and he had a lot of surgeries

and a lot of radiation,

and he was pretty sick

for, I guess, a year, something

pretty close to a year.

>> It started in December.

And he was finished with the --

At least there was --

There was a five year look-see

operation, follow-up operation,

but there was massive surgery.

And then there was daily

radiation because, in those

days, there was no chemotherapy.

That was a very trying time.

>> So, would you describe

what your typical day

was like in that period of time?

Because I think it framed

your penchant for working

until 4:00 in the morning or


>> Well, I'd go to my classes

in the morning.

I had note takers

for Marty's classes.

I would then go to Mass General

to see him.

Then I'd come home

and play with Jane and feed her

and put her to bed.

Marty would get up --

Well, first, the daily radiation

made him very sick.

So when he finished being sick

and he finally went to sleep,

he would wake up about midnight.

And, at midnight, whatever food

he was going to have

for the day, he would have then,

and he would dictate

his third-year paper to me.

So when he went back to sleep,

then I went back

to my own work to prepare

for the next morning's classes.

>> So that's how you got

to think that 2:00 a.m.

was an early-to-bed time.

>> Yes, it would have been.

>> [ Chuckles ]

So, in the movie, there is --

this will really entice you --

fairly early on in the movie,

there's a sex scene.

I wonder what you

thought of the sex scene.

>> What I thought of it was

that Marty would have loved it.

[ Laughter, applause ]

>> So, I'm looking at my watch

because I'm a broadcaster.

It says that we're just about,

I think, out of time.

You know, you had a lifelong

friendship with the late

Justice Scalia -- or at least

lifelong from the time of,

I guess, the early '80s

or maybe even before that

when you were at the

University of Chicago for one

semester or something like that.

But you were friends

for a very long time,

and it is no secret that you had

very different interpretations

of the Constitution and how

to interpret the Constitution,

and those differences are even

the basis of an opera.

>> A comic opera.

>> A comic opera.

[ Laughter ]

A comic, not a tragic opera.

A comic opera.

So, people often say to me,

"How could they have

such good friends?"

>> Perhaps I can explain

Scalia's view, my view, and our

togetherness by repeating some

lines from the opera,


Oh, people ask me, "Why did you

let Scalia go first?"

Because everything, as you know,

in the court

is done by seniority

and Scalia was appointed

in the late '80s.

I didn't get there

until the '90s.

Anyway, his opening aria

is a rage aria,

and it goes like this.

"The justices are blind.

How can they possibly

spout this?

The Constitution says

absolutely nothing about this."

And then in my lyric

soprano voice I answer him,

telling him he's searching

for bright-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.

And then she goes into a jazz

routine with, "Let it grow, let

it grow."

[ Laughter ]

The plot of this opera

is roughly based on

"The Magic Flute,"

and Justice Scalia

is locked in a dark room,

being punished for excessive


[ Laughter ]

I enter the scene

through a glass ceiling

to help him get through

the tests he has to pass

to get out of the dark room.

So the person in charge

of the show asks,

"Why do you want to help him?

He's your enemy."

I say, "He's not my enemy.

He's my dear friend."

And then we sing a duet,

and it is, "We are different --

we are one,"

different in our approach

to interpreting legal texts,

but one in our reverence

for the Constitution

and the institution we serve.

>> So, with that, that seems

like a good place to end.

[ Applause ]

Thank you, Justice Ginsburg.

>> Thank you.


>> This program was made

possible by viewers like you.







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