As a Jew from Flatbush, you’d think her dialect would be brisk and boisterous.
But Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has made a career out of her calm demeanor and wise counsel, evident again at the National Constitution Center Feb. 12 for a candid conversation — part of the museum’s America’s Town Hall program — with the judicial rock star in honor of the 25th anniversary of her appointment to the Supreme Court.
“I try to think before I speak,” she paused to laughter from a crowd of 700.
The University of Pennsylvania’s School of Law sponsored the event.
Amy Gutmann, Penn’s president, introduced Ginsburg, someone she said she feels a deep kinship with.
They both appeared in a PBS documentary, The Jewish Americans, from which Gutmann shared a riddle of Ginsburg’s: “What’s the difference between a bookkeeper in New York’s garment district and a Supreme Court justice? One generation.”
That was the quintessential theme of the evening, as Constitution Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen — whose October wedding Ginsburg officiated — questioned Ginsburg on her life accomplishments as well as the current polarized political climate for women and gender equality.
The #MeToo movement was a highlight of the discussion.
“Sexual harassment of women has gone on forever,” she said. “The number of women who have come forward as a result of the #MeToo movement has been astonishing. My hope is not just that it is here to stay but that it is as effective for the woman who works as a maid in a hotel as it is for Hollywood stars.”
Ginsburg believes the movement will have a lasting effect, similar to that of the gay rights movement. People stepped up rapidly to show their support.
She admitted she’s heard stories by women of Harvey Weinstein’s inappropriate behavior many years ago, but praised The New York Times for its expose on the Hollywood mogul.
“It was the press finally taking notice of something that they knew long before that propelled it into the place it now holds,” she added.
Ginsburg shared her own #MeToo story (originally shared at Sundance for a documentary about her, titled RBG): She was in a chemistry class at Cornell, and a male teaching assistant offered to give her a practice exam the day before the actual exam.
“When I went into the room and looked at the exam paper, I found that it was the exam, and I knew immediately what this instructor expected as a payoff. So instead of being shy, I confronted him and said, ‘How dare you do this?’”
Rosen asked if Ginsburg had advice for men in this “new normal.”
“Just think how you would like the women in your family to be treated, particularly your daughters,” she said softly. “There are degrees of conduct, yes. But anytime a woman is put in a position where she is inferior, subordinate, she should complain. She should not be afraid.”
So what’s next for social change? Ginsburg said rights first have to start with people who want them.
Her support for equal education and work opportunities has been poignant, but equal responsibility for child care is a cause she knows firsthand.
While in her final year of Columbia Law School, her daughter was about 3 years old. There was only one nursery school in the area.
“By the time my daughter was a mother herself — and teaching at Columbia Law School — there were over two dozen full-day day care facilities in that area,” she recalled.
“We have come a considerable distance,” she continued. “The changes I’ve seen in my lifetime have been enormous. Of course, we haven’t reached nirvana. But the progress we’ve made makes me hopeful for the future.”
Back in the ’70s when racist jokes where becoming more taboo, women were still fair game, she noted. But she’s been able to keep a calm composure because anger is an unproductive emotion — and she wanted to win cases.
Ginsburg hopes to pass onto the next (feminist) generation an unconscious bias. When she was growing up, for example, women were rarely seen as orchestra musicians, except maybe a female harpist.
She referred to a New York Times music critic who swore he could tell the difference between male and female musicians. So he was put to the test, blindfolded — and he guessed wrong.
“He was good enough to admit that unconscious bias was operating,” she explained. “Someone got the even brighter idea to put up a curtain between the people who are auditioning and the judges, and that simple device, almost overnight, led to women showing up in symphony orchestras in numbers.
“I wish we could have a drop curtain in every field of endeavour.”
But the best advice, she said, comes from her mother-in-law on her wedding day: “She said, ‘Dear, in every good marriage it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.’ And that is advice I have applied not only in 56 years of marriage but to this day in my current workplace.”
Ginsburg continuously offered swift and direct answers to Rosen’s questions, though one response got the crowd laughing:
“Let me ask you,” she began to Rosen. “As a man, do you think that you will be hesitant to encourage women to come forward?”
“On the contrary,” Rosen replied. “I have felt — like many men — sensitized to the plight of women by hearing these stories, and it seems like an entirely salutary thing in the workplace.”
She paused, then simply, “Yes.”
Ginsburg’s points are tangible. Immediately exiting one side of the Grand Hall, attendees breezed by an exhibit of the reenactment of the signing of the Constitution, the room brimming with dozens of life-size bronze statues of those who signed it into law — all men.
“If you exempt women, you are saying they’re expendable,” she said. “If the spirit of liberty dies in the hearts of the people, there’s no court capable of restoring it. But I can see the spirit of my grandchildren and their friends, and I have faith in this generation.”