Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–In 1959, the young woman who would become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was 26, at the top of her class and editor of the law review at Columbia Law School. She was looking for that career-making clerkship with a federal judge.

It was a hard sell for her mentor, Columbia Professor Gerald Gunther, the go-between for the judges and anxious students, Ginsburg recalled last week for an audience of lawyers and feminists gathered to honor her at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

When Gunther told the revered Manhattan federal court Judge Edmund L. Palmieri who his new clerk was to be, Palmieri balked. Ginsburg recalled:

“‘Are you crazy?’ he asked Gunther. ‘Not only is she a woman, but she also has a four-year-old child!'”

She got the job, but only after the two men made a private bargain that a law student of appropriate gender and fewer responsibilities would be standing in the wings, primed to take her place.

Ginsburg, now 67 and recovering from colon cancer, reminded the standing-room-only crowd that too little had changed over the past 40 years. Small in stature, and slight in figure, Ginsburg nevertheless filled the room with her energy and held her audience with rapt attention.

Ginsburg: Men Must Share Responsibility to Rear Next Generation

Asked to identify a major barrier standing in the way of full equality for women, she said it depended on the answer to one question:

“Who will take responsibility for raising the next generation? Women will only have true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.”

Ginsburg made the comments in an interview with ABC correspondent Lynn Sherr before the first annual Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law, delivered by Kathleen M. Sullivan, dean of the Stanford University Law School.

The annual Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law was created by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York to serve as an on-going forum focusing on issues related to women and the law. The symposium was co-sponsored by the bar and by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, the publisher of Women’s Enews. The lecture and symposium marked the 30th anniversary of the founding of NOW Legal Defense.

Prior to Ginsburg’s remarks, Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall of Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court spoke during a symposium on the current legal environment for women’s equality. She too spoke on the need for work styles and expectations to change before women could be truly equal.

The first woman to serve as the state’s chief justice, Marshall was born in South Africa, became an anti-apartheid activist during her undergraduate years there, emigrated to the U.S. and graduated from Yale Law School. Marshall also served as Harvard University’s vice president and general counsel.

Women Lawyers With Children Held Back by Demands for More Work

Marshall said she could not have achieved her current level of success if she had been a mother because a career such as hers required 80-hour work weeks, and it still does.

“I hope that we are moving three steps forward and two steps backward, not two steps forward and three steps backward,” Marshall said.

Ginsburg’s and Marshall’s concerns were reflected by several other attorneys during another panel discussion, this one focused on the problems of female law professionals in today’s supercharged workplace. The attorneys noted that even as women were reaching parity with men in the numbers of women entering law school, female lawyers with children, still carrying the lion’s share of home responsibilities, were being held back in their careers by growing demands for longer hours, heavier workloads and instant travel.

Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen SullivanStanford Law School Dean Sullivan, as she delivered the inaugural Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lecture, did not reflect on current issues but instead analyzed the manner in which Ginsburg and her colleagues advanced women’s legal rights.

As far as Constitutional guarantees of women’s rights were concerned, these women of another generation were “working with nothing in the kitchen,” said Sullivan. The U.S. Constitution mentions sex only once, in the 19th Amendment where it states that the right to vote “shall not be abridged or denied by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Lecture Recalls How Ginsburg Constructed New Legal Standards

Women’s advocates were forced to rely on the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and a clause in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that barred employment discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Yet, in winning a series of groundbreaking Supreme Court decisions, the lawyer Ginsburg used these limited legal tools to set precedents to reach a heightened legal scrutiny of any laws or regulations in which men and women were treated differently–precedents which form the basis of American women’s rights today. She won five of six cases argued before the Supreme Court and participated in dozens more.

To Sullivan, who admirers believe might become the third woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, there was something uniquely “womanlike” in the approach of Ginsburg and her colleagues.

“They were stealthy; they were patient; they were willing to work with what was at hand and to accept small gains,” she explained. Given the structure of the U.S. Constitution and American legal tradition, she added, it will be this kind of “kaleidoscopic” approach that will further women’s rights in the future.

Sullivan warned the audience not to be misled by Ginsburg’s “diminitive stature.” “When we stand on her shoulders,” she declared, “we stand on the shoulders of a giant.”

Kristin Choo is a free-lance writer based in New York.