Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in Her Own Words

By: Caitlin Panarella

On Thursday, April 27, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg arrived on Georgetown’s campus to discuss her experiences and new book, My Own Words, with the Georgetown community.  Donning an “RBG” bag as she walked out on the stage of Gaston Hall, Justice Ginsberg was met with thunderous applause from the audience.  The two women that accompanied her onstage, Mary Hartnett and Wendy Williams, are her authorized biographers and assisted the Justice in compiling her recent book.  

All members of the audience received a copy of the book, a compilation of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s speeches, editorials, and other writings from her life’s work.  It testifies to her lifelong dedication to serving the public interest; the first work is an editorial from her middle school newspaper, in which eighth-grader Ruth discusses the then-new Charter of the United Nations.  Other chapters include her arguments against gender bias, her Rose Garden acceptance speech upon her appointment as a Justice, and dissents from Supreme Court cases. 

Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, became the second woman appointed to the role after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.  Appointed by President Bill Clinton, she took the oath of office on August 10, 1993.  Prior to serving on the Supreme Court, she was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Colombia Circuit, worked at the American Civil Liberties Union, and taught as a college professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark and Colombia Law School.

From the sampling of the interview’s hour and fifteen minutes, the Justice imparted wisdom to every college student, especially women, merely in the way she responded to questions.  After the moderator asked a question, Ginsberg would pause for a few moments, calling the audience to listen to what she was preparing to say.  She spoke seriously and with measure given to every word, not rushing to answer just to fill the empty space.  Her style commands respect and attention, and is worthy of emulation. 

Justice Ginsberg’s late husband, Marty Ginsberg, once said of his wife in an interview, “If you ask her a question that requires a thought-through answer she will stop, think it through and then answer it.  She has done that for the fifty-four years I have known her.  She still does it at dinner.”  

During the conversation, Justice Ginsberg spoke of her early career work as a lawyer fighting against gender bias and discrimination, in which she first had to argue that this bias harmed women rather than favored them.  The pervasive mindset and justification stood that women should not be exposed to the roughness and stress of courtrooms and politics, so it was a kindness to bar them from being jurors or occupying too much space in Congress.  They would soon be mothers, so of course they should not receive a promotion.  Their pay supplemented their husband’s, so it need not be equal to a male colleague’s.

“[They] kept her not on a pedestal, but in a cage,” Justice Ginsberg said of these gendered preconceptions.     

When asked what challenges remain for women today, she spoke of implicit gender bias, a phenomenon that she said might be even more difficult to root out.  Ginsberg’s work and advocacy brought an end to explicit laws and policies barring women from the workplace and other public spaces; the work that remains is to change laws that covertly disadvantage women and biased attitudes that inhibit their advancement.

Perhaps we can take a page out of the Justice’s book and treat certain situations with some humor.  When asked whether it was difficult or intimidating speaking to Congress about these issues, Ginsberg replied slyly, “I felt more like a kindergarten teacher than anything else.”  Armed with the knowledge of our inherent equality, women can continue Ginsberg’s work.

Justice Ginsberg not only served as a trailblazer for women in politics and the justice system, but also made it her prerogative to advance women in every field.  She exemplified what she entreated the audience to do: “see a need, and know you have a talent to respond to that need.”  In her own words, both in her book and onstage in Gaston Hall, she best summed up how far women have come and how far we still have to go.  We must continue to question the implicit mechanisms by which women are placed on pedestals and in cages, rather than accept the hand dealt to us. 



My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsberg