Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was greeted with a roaring standing ovation from more than 1,600 people on Monday, Sept. 23 at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, spoke at Meredith College’s 2019 Lillian Parker Wallace Lecture.
Interviewing Ginsburg was Suzanne Reynolds, the first female dean of Wake Forest University Law School. Reynolds led the conversation as Ginsburg reflected on her journey throughout law school and the importance of her family. The women also discussed the court cases Ginsburg argued before the Court and the contemporary political divide.
To begin the conversation, Ginsburg said she attributes most of her success to her mother, Celia Bader. Although Bader died the day before Ginsburg’s high school graduation, many of her mother’s life lessons still stick with her.
“The two lessons that she stressed more than anything else … was ‘be independent,’ and the other was ‘be a lady,’" Ginsburg said. “Being independent meant it would be fine if you met and married Prince Charming, but whether you do or not, always be ready to fend for yourself. And her other message … meant don’t lose time on emotions that won’t get you any place … A lady doesn’t let those emotions interfere with her life. Just do things that will help you more forward.”
When Ginsburg attended Harvard Law School in 1956, she was one of nine women in a class of approximately 500 men. Getting an average of two hours of sleep a night, she completed all of her coursework, assisted Martin Ginsburg, her husband, with his work while he was diagnosed with cancer, and took care of their 1-year-old child, Jane.
However, despite excelling at Harvard Law School and Columbia Law School, Ginsburg said the biggest challenge for women during her generation was finding that first job. Once she was able to get her foot in the door, she went on to argue six cases on gender discrimination in front of the Supreme Court, five of which she won.
“I was facing a bench of men who thought they were very good husbands and very good fathers, and all the differentials in the law between men and women, they thought they favored women,” Ginsburg said. “It was getting the court to understand that these differentials were no favor to women … The pedestal on which women were thought to stand too often turns out to be a cage. Opening their eyes to that reality was the challenge.”
On June 14, 1993, Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. She was later confirmed by the Senate (96-3) on Aug. 3, 1993, which according to Ginsburg was record time. Since her confirmation, the political climate has changed, Ginsburg said, so other deserving nominees don't receive such an overwhelming majority vote.
"When you think of my current Chief Justice Roberts, superbly qualified, he had many negative votes," Ginsburg said. "More recently, my dear colleagues, Sonia Sotomayor and Elana Kagan; they should have gone through unanimously, but they had over 30 negative votes. I hope I will live to see the day when we go back to the way it was and the way it should be."
Ginsburg also reflected on the importance of currently having three women on the Supreme Court.
“It is tremendously important to the public perception of the court,” Ginsburg said. “The worst time for me was when Justice O’Connor retired, and I was the lone woman … They saw eight rather well-fed men and this rather small woman. But now that we’re three, we’re all over the bench … we’re one-third of the bench. We look like we’re there to stay, no longer one-at-a-time curiosities.”
At the close of the conversation, Ginsburg offered a piece of advice to the audience, encouraging everyone to take part in community service and practice activism.
“Whatever field you chose to pursue, in addition, do something that is outside yourself,” Ginsburg said. “Something that will make things better in your community, for people less fortunate than you are, things that will bring people together instead of dividing them … Whether you’re worried about climate change or the remaining discrimination, do something that will help repair the tears in your community."
After the lecture, Caroline Haw, a Meredith College student majoring in art education and studio art, said she was very thankful for the opportunity to see Ginsburg in person.
“I find Ruth Bader Ginsburg really speaks to me," Haw said. "She speaks to everybody no matter what career you are going into. She fights for equality for everyone, and something that I really admire about her, especially with the situation in our world today, is that she calls out b.s. when she sees it, and she fights for what’s right and we really need that right now.”
Lilly Saffold, a Meredith College student majoring in dance and biology, also expressed her admiration for Ginsburg.
“I came to see Justice Ginsburg tonight because she’s been one of my heroes since I was five years old,” Saffold said. “She has always been a very strong female figure in my life, and I’ve always admired her passion and perseverance and her dedication to the advancement of not only women’s rights, but human rights.”
A Conversation with Ruth Bader Ginsburg was made possible by the Lillian Parker Wallace Fund. Students who are interested in learning more about the fund and Lillian Parker Wallace can visit their website. To watch the lecture, students can visit Meredith College’s YouTube channel.