U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talked about the evolution of the women's rights movement, what it's like to be interrupted on the bench and life as a pop culture icon during a presentation Friday to a group of lawyers and judges in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Ginsburg was at the resort town to be interviewed by Pepperdine Law School Dean Deanell Tacha as part of the annual Utah State Bar convention. But she deftly sidestepped questions on some of the gender discrimination issues facing the courts today. Instead, she focused on the legal strategies she used early in her career to help chip away at explicit gender-based discrimination that was then enshrined in state and federal law. Ginsburg helped launch the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project in 1971.
"Everyone knew that racism is an odious thing," Ginsburg said of the late 1960s and 1970s. "But when I started out in this business, I had a persuasion job to do, because most men — men on the bench — thought that discriminations based on gender worked benignly in women's favor."
Progress was made by finding test cases that demonstrated how gender-based laws hurt men as well as women, she said.
Two cases marked a legal sea change in the women's rights movement, Ginsburg said. One was a man who sued over a tax code that offered a credit only to women or widowed or divorced men who took care of children or elderly family members. He was married and also the primary caregiver for his elderly mother.
The other was a case out of Idaho, from a woman named Sally Reeds. Reeds was fighting to have the right to be the executor of her deceased son's estate. At the time, Idaho state law dictated that men should be chosen as executors over women when possible.
"Those would be the two turning point cases," Ginsburg said.
Institutional discrimination pushed Ginsburg into her legal career. She and her late husband, Martin Ginsburg, were planning to go to Harvard University for graduate school. At the time, the Harvard School of Business didn't accept women, which left the law school as her only option.
"Today, the discriminations are more subtle," Ginsburg said, with unconscious bias forming much of the problem.
Ginsburg laughed about the wave of popularity she is experiencing. During the past several years, she has become a pop culture icon, her likeness emblazoned on T-shirts, tote bags and accessories.
"I'm 84 years old, and everyone wants to take a picture with me," she said. "But I like the way it started."
A second-year law student at New York University was upset about a 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down part of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. The student created an online post citing Ginsburg's dissent to the ruling, and dubbed her the "Notorious RBG," playing off the name and reputation of famous rapper the Notorious B.I.G.
Other Ginsburg fans repeated the new moniker, and soon her likeness was emblazoned on a variety of products.
Ginsburg has survived colon cancer as well as a bout with the often-deadly pancreatic cancer. She credits her workouts with her physical trainer, Bryant Johnson, for keeping her fit and energetic enough for the bench.