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Ginsburg keeps date to speak at Radcliffe; tells audience, “you have to spark a change in the kinds of lives people want to live” | Hunter of Justice

Ginsburg keeps date to speak at Radcliffe; tells audience, “you have to spark a change in the kinds of lives people want to live”

by on March 15, 2009  •  In Supreme Court

99-ginsburg [The following is a combination of reports from the Harvard Crimson and the public affairs office.]

Last week's Radcliffe College conference , “Gender and the Law: Unintended Consequences, Unsettled Questions,” opened with a panel composed of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; U.S. District Court of Massachusetts Judge Nancy Gertner; First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Sandra L. Lynch, and former New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda J. Greenhouse. 

[Photo shows (L to R) Gertner, Ginsburg and Greenhouse]

The Justice spoke about her experiences as a female in the traditionally male-dominated field of law. When she attended Harvard Law School, Ginsburg said, she was one of only nine women in her class. Ginsburg began her legal studies at Harvard Law School in 1956; however, her husband was offered a job in New York and Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School, where she finished her degree. But, said Ginsburg, to the delight of her audience, “lately, Elena Kagan has said, ‘whenever you want a degree you can have one.’”

Ginsburg and her fellow panelists discussed how the law in general has changed as society has changed. In the 1960s and ’70s, when Ginsburg was beginning her career as a lawyer, people were beginning to question the status quo in terms of gender discrimination and the law.

“People were awakening to a form of discrimination that [had been] considered, ‘just the way it is,’ and students wanted to know more about this subject [gender and law] and what could be done to change the way things were,” said Ginsburg. “It was a headier time because it seemed so clear — the pace of change was so clear, what had to be done was so clear. But now it’s much more opaque, it’s less about … explicit discrimination, and now it’s more about subtle discrimination.”

Ginsburg acknowledged that progress now requires more than just legal action. “There are distinct limits to law,” Ginsburg said. “You have to spark a change in what people want to do, what kinds of lives they want to live.”

After Ginsburg described former Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist rehearsing to swear her in, Greenhouse said, “I think rehearsal’s a good thing when you’re swearing somebody in, right?” The reference was to Chief Justice John G. Roberts' blunder during President Obama's inauguration. The audience erupted in laughter for several seconds, while Ginsburg smiled and remained silent.

Greenhouse ended the proceedings with a general question about the future of law, to which Ginsburg replied: “As hard as times are, I remain optimistic about the potential of the United States.”

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