On Saturday, December 10, 2005, the Chicago Foundation of Women (CFW) honored U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by inaugurating an award in her name and conducting a discussion with a panel of prominent women, including the Honorable Judge Ann Williams, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Members of the ISBA Women and the Law Committee were fortunate to have been invited to the event. We attended along with some 500 others, mostly women lawyers and judges, for a conversation with the Justice and the panel. The event was held in the beautiful Winder garden of the Harold Washington Library Center.
As a lawyer, an academic, an activist, and as a Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has created a pioneering body of law establishing women’s rights in this country. Justice Ginsburg spoke of her concerns about the suspicion and discomfort that still surrounds feminism, which she refers to as the “F” word, and its credo and agenda. She discussed her long history and involvement with what she called the clear and simple mission of feminism—“equal citizenship status for all.” She described the changes that she has observed in the status of women in society during her lifetime as “enormous.” She spoke intimately about her entrance into law school in 1950 when she was a new mother of an 18-month-old daughter and the support she received from her family, especially her father-in-law. She described details of her graduation from law school in 1954 in what she called the “sad days” of our country, during the height of the “Red Scare” and “McCarthyism.”
Justice Ginsburg shared details about her career, from the rejection of her application to be a Supreme Court Clerk to her 12-year term on the High Court. She talked about her deep friendship with and respect for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and other members of the Court. When asked about the Court and her relationship with the other justices, she said, “we genuinely care for each other” and “we are all very much a family.” She described how she and her family spend the holidays with the Scalias and how all the other Justices helped her throughout her fight with cancer. Justice Ginsburg passed on to us the best advice she received from Justice O’Connor: “Be visible and then put on an impressive show!”
Although she could not comment on the current confirmation proceedings, she did speak about her own confirmation process and the establishment of what is now called the “Ginsburg Rule.” According to Justice Ginsburg, the rule is: “Ask me anything about anything I have written as a judge or law teacher, but you cannot ask me to preview any case or issue that may come before the Court.” She then gave an example and said that, since she had written two articles about Roe v. Wade when she was a teacher, questions about what she had written were fair game; however, she refused to answer other specific questions about Roe v. Wade that were not covered in the two articles.
Justice Ginsburg credited former President Jimmy Carter for having single-handedly and forever changing the complexion of the U.S. judiciary during his one term in office by appointing many women and minorities to the bench.
Since December 10th was International Human Rights Day, Justice Ginsburg and the other panelists commented on the importance of looking to other countries for guidance on issues before the courts. She mentioned Canada, whose highest constitutional court is headed by a woman. Justice Ginsburg spoke about why she refers to international law and said that cases from other countries provide valuable instruction on issues that we are dealing with for the first time in the U.S., such as terrorism. She spoke passionately of “maintaining liberty in the hearts of the people in times of terror” and the role the Constitution plays in that equation. She told us that she personally carries her copy of the Constitution with her everywhere she goes.
Justice Ginsburg lamented that the U.S. Constitution is the only Constitution in the Western world which does not contain an equal rights provision—even Afghanistan’s Constitution includes an equal-rights-under-the-law provision. Ginsburg and the panel members talked about their respective individual experiences with the Equal Rights Amendment and the impact this work had on each of them and their careers. They discussed the history of the ERA and its introduction as a congressional bill every year since 1923. One of the members on the panel, Attorney Tina Tchen, lamented that despite many years of efforts the ERA was not ratified in Illinois. However, Justice Ginsburg opined that, fortunately, the decisions of the Court in the last 40 years have mostly gone the same way that they would have had the ERA passed. She stated that women speak in different voices than men and that the feminist credo, “each of us should be free to be you and me,” is inclusive, not exclusive. She warned that we cannot expect to be listened to if we are not willing to listen in return. Justice Ginsburg and the panel members suggested that putting money into women’s projects, lending money to women to start up enterprises, educating women and helping fathers become good, caring parents are the best ways to promote and encourage feminism.
By the end of the afternoon it was difficult to think of Ginsburg as “Justice Ginsburg”—she was so down to earth, intimate, and exhibited such a great sense of humor, that many of us had to fight the urge to call her “Ruth.” She complimented the CFW, which is celebrating its 20th year, for being an “altogether engaging organization.” For more information regarding CFW and its goal of “strengthening the voice of women and girls” and insuring they are a force for change in metropolitan Chicago, go to www.cfw.org. A video of the conversation with Justice Ginsburg, a list of events throughout their anniversary year, and a list of 20 simple things you can do right now to make life better for women and girls is available through the CFW. As many of our Women and the Law Committee’s goals and values are the same as the CFW’s mission, we invite you to report back to us on efforts (individual or group) to do any items on the list which either promote listening or strengthening our voices as women, which as suggested by Ruth, should be the focal point of the “F” word.