Countless words have been, and will continue to be, written about the incomparable U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served on the high court for 27 years.
I will leave discussions of her tenure on the Court to others.
What I will do here is recount the one and only time I encountered her in person, at a law school conference, at a pivotal point in her career. If you’re interested in learning about that encounter, please read on.
In September of 1972, I was a full-time faculty member at the University of Michigan (UM) Law School. Notably, I was the only full-time faculty member who was a woman.
The law school had a desirable setting on the UM campus, whose multitude of elm trees were unfortunately denuded of leaves, thanks to Dutch elm disease. The law school buildings made up the stunning Law Quadrangle, featuring beautiful old buildings constructed in the English Gothic style.
My role on the faculty was to help first-year law students learn the basics of legal education: how to analyze court rulings (the kind they would read in the books assigned to them in courses like Torts and Contracts); how to do their own research into case law; and how to write a readable legal document, like an appellate brief aimed at persuading an appellate court to decide in their favor.
I was one of four young lawyers hired to fill this role. The three men and I each taught one-fourth of the first-year class. As I recall, we got to choose our offices in the law school library, and I immediately chose a plum. It was an enormous wood-paneled room with charming hand-blown stained glass windows. One entered it via a stairway leading upstairs from the library’s impressive reading room. I treasured my office and happily welcomed meeting with students there. And I wonder, in light of renovations at the law school, whether that glorious office still exists.
At some point early that fall, I learned that a conference on “women and the law” would be held at the New York University School of Law in October. This was a bold new area of law that most law schools didn’t consider worth their attention. NYU was clearly an exception.
The idea of the conference immediately grabbed my attention because I had a longstanding interest in its stated focus. One reason why I had myself attended law school a few years before was that, beginning very early in my life, I was and remain concerned with achieving equity and justice, including equal rights for women.
This focus had led me to attend law school during the mid-’60s. My first job was that of law clerk to a U.S. district judge in Chicago. After finishing my clerkship, I became a practicing lawyer as a Reggie assigned to my first choice, the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau. [I discussed the Reggie program in a blog post, “The Summer of ’69,” published on August 7, 2015.]
And so, three years earlier, in October of 1969, I had begun working on a lawsuit that had a significant bearing on women’s rights because it would challenge the constitutionality of Illinois’s restrictive abortion law. This law had an enormous impact on the lives of women, especially poor and non-white women.
I worked with Sybille Fritzsche, a lawyer with the ACLU in Chicago, who became my close friend. Sybille and I spent months preparing our case. We filed our lawsuit in February 1970, argued it before a three-judge federal court in September, and won a 2-to-1 ruling in our favor in January 1971. (The ruling in that case, Doe v. Scott, and the events leading up to it, are the focus of a book I’m currently writing. In the meantime, you can read about our case in historian Leslie Reagan’s prize-winning book, When Abortion Was a Crime.)
Now, in the fall of 1972, I learned about the conference at NYU. Because I was extremely interested in attending it, I decided to ask the UM law school’s dean, Theodore St. Antoine, whether the school might send me to New York to attend it. I thought I had a pretty persuasive argument: I was the only full-time woman on the law school faculty. Didn’t the dean think it would be a good idea to send me to represent UM at the conference?
How could he say “no”? Ted thought about for a moment, then gave his approval. So off I went, my expenses paid by the kind patrons of UM.
My hotel, the Fifth Avenue Hotel, located near NYU’s law school, had sounded appealing on paper, but it turned out to be something of a dump. It suited me just fine, however, because I barely spent any time there. I was too busy attending the conference sessions and, when I could, taking a short break to reconnect with a couple of law-school classmates and briefly sample life in New York City, a city light-years removed from less-than-exhilarating Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The conference, held on October 20-21, turned out to be a symposium sponsored by AALS (the American Association of Law Schools), “The AALS Symposium on the Law School Curriculum and the Legal Rights of Women.” It featured a number of prominent speakers, mostly law professors and practicing lawyers who had turned their attention to “the legal rights of women” in areas like tax law, property law, and criminal law. I attended most of these sessions, and each of them was excellent.
But the only session I was really excited about was a talk by someone named Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I was quite certain that I would relish hearing her talk, “Toward Elimination of Sex-Based Discrimination: Constitutional Aspects,” because the topic was right down my alley.
Looking back, I don’t think I knew anything about RBG at the time. But when she was introduced (by NYU dean Robert McKay) and began to speak, I was riveted by every word she uttered. She spelled out everything she had already done and planned to do to achieve gender-equity.
So although I was not already familiar with her, I knew immediately that she clearly was and would continue to be a brilliant leader in the field of women’s rights. I filed her name away in my memory so I could follow whatever she would do in the coming years. And I did just that, enthusiastically following the many astounding accomplishments she achieved after 1972.
Your image of RBG may be that of the frail, petite woman who took center stage in our culture in her 80s. But the RBG I saw in 1972 was very different. She was an amazingly attractive young woman of 39. You can see photos of her at that time in The New York Times of September 18 (in Linda Greenhouse’s long review of her life and career) and in a recent issue of TIME magazine (Oct. 5-12, 2020). Although much has been made of her short stature (one I share), she was so very energetic and focused that one quickly forgot how small she was.
It turned out that she had attended Harvard Law School about a decade before I did. Like her, I’ve been called a “trailblazer” and a “pioneer,” and I also confronted gender-bias at every turn throughout my life. My path was only a bit less rocky than hers: My class at HLS included the whopping number of 25 women in a class of 520, while hers had only 9.
I’ve since learned that October 1972 marked a pivotal time in RBG’s career. She had just switched her teaching position from Rutgers Law School to Columbia Law School (a considerable upgrade). And she had just assumed another new position: Director of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, a project she had helped to found a short time before.
So I’m left wondering…did she know about the case Sybille (an ACLU attorney in Chicago) and I brought in February 1970, a case that put a woman’s right to reproductive choice front and center?
RBG was an ardent supporter of reproductive rights during her tenure on the Supreme Court. She discussed her views on abortion and gender equality in a 2009 New York Times interview, where she said “[t]he basic thing is that the government has no business making that choice for a woman.”
But I know that she had also stated that she wasn’t entirely happy with the way in which Roe v. Wade gave every woman in the U.S. that choice by bringing cases like Doe v. Scott in the federal courts. She stated that she would have preferred that the argument had been made, over time, in each state’s legislature, with the right to choose being gradually adopted in that way rather than in one overriding court ruling that included every state.
Notably, on the 40th anniversary of the court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, she criticized the decision because it terminated “a nascent democratic movement to liberalize abortion laws” that might have built “a more durable consensus” in support of abortion rights.
She had a point. A democratic movement to liberalize abortion laws would have been the ideal route, and might have been a less contentious route, to achieving abortion rights throughout the country.
But I think her position was influenced by her own life story.
It stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that in April 1970, she was living and working in New York, where the state legislature had passed a new law allowing abortion, and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had signed it on April 11, 1970. New York became only the second state in the U.S. (after Hawaii) to permit abortion, and only a few other states had carved out any sort of exception to what was otherwise a nationwide ban on abortion.
RBG may have optimistically believed that other states would follow New York’s lead. But history has proved otherwise.
If women had waited for each of the 50 states to accomplish the goal of women’s reproductive choice, I think we’d still have many states refusing to enact laws allowing choice. In support of my view, I ask readers to consider the situation today, when some states are trying to restrict abortion so frenetically, with or without achieving a complete ban, that they’re now simply waiting for a far-right conservative Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Whether or not RBG was aware of what was happening in the courtrooms of Chicago in 1970, I think I could have persuaded her that Sybille and I were doing the right thing.
By advocating that the federal district court hold that the restrictive Illinois abortion law was unconstitutional, and persuading the court to decide in our favor, we achieved our goal of saving the lives and health of countless women who would have otherwise suffered from their inability to obtain a legal and medically safe abortion.
What greater achievement on behalf of women’s rights could there have been?
I like to think that, after hearing my argument, RBG would have approved.