Women’s fight for equality is not over, according to one of its most fiery advocates in her life and on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said discrimination may not be as overt as when she first sought a job, but an unconscious bias still exists in many people’s minds.
She spoke Friday afternoon at the opening keynote session of the inaugural symposium of the Women’s International Study Center in Santa Fe. Joining her in conversation was Albuquerque attorney Roberta Cooper Ramo, who was the first female elected president of the American Bar Association and the American Law Institute.
When today’s women tell her they don’t see any closed doors, Ginsburg said, she cautions them, “Wait until the babies come.”
One of the first objections mentioned when a law school professor called judges around New York to see if he could find a clerkship for her, Ginsburg said, was: “But she has a 4-year-old boy!” With his influence, she did get a placement, but she recalls those days when people now ask her if she always wanted to be a Supreme Court justice.
“When I graduated from law school, I wanted ANY job,” she said.
True to her background as a scholar and teacher, Ginsburg reminded the audience of the many court decisions that scoffed at women’s rights.
When a woman abused by her husband appealed her conviction on murdering him with a baseball bat based on the fact that the jury included only men, the Supreme Court didn’t see a problem. When a mother and daughter owning a tavern appealed a statute that women couldn’t serve drinks from behind the bar, the 1948 Supreme Court “made light of this… and spoke of barrooms being unsavory places,” Ginsburg said.
“The courts are not in the vanguard of social change,” she said. “They fall behind society, catching up with changes that were occurring in the way people live.”
Asked about her decision to read her dissent from the bench in the recent so-called “Hobby Lobby case,” in which the court ruled that certain employers could choose not to cover certain reproductive services in health insurance if it violated their religious beliefs, Ginsburg said there are two reasons for such an action.
One, as in this case, is in hopes of influencing future Supreme Courts “to correct what she sees as an error her colleagues have made,” Ginsburg said.
Another reason is to send a message to Congress to make a statute clearer, as when she dissented in a court opinion that said a woman facing unequal pay to her male colleagues didn’t file a complaint within the 180 required days. Every time the woman received a check that was lower than comparable male workers, Ginsburg contended, that discrimination was renewed.
Ginsburg concluded with a challenge to today’s women: “Work with something outside of yourself that you care deeply about that will make things better for other people.”