Sunday may have been Election Law Day at the AALS, but Saturday was RBG day. Justice Ginsburg gave a moving introduction at the Women in Legal Education luncheon honoring her friend Herma Hill Kay, whose speech was equally inspiring. The Justice also spoke about her own formative experiences and days in law school in her conversation with Wendy Williams at the subsequent Women in Legal Education and Legal History session. You can read the highlights of her talk here—including the confirmation of her good health and her mother-in-law’s advice for a good marriage (it helps to be a little deaf), which Justice Ginsburg also finds helpful in relations with her colleagues.
The Justice also seemed to enjoy the panel presentations by the scholars studying women’s legal history, and contributed her own thoughts on the history of the post-suffrage movement. She made particular note of how, when Chief Justice Taft and Congress forced the National Women’s Party to move its headquarters so that the Court could have the site for its present building, the NWP counsel, Burnita Shelton Matthews (who would become the first women on the federal bench), fought congressional efforts to pay less than fair market value and obtained what was at the time the highest condemnation payment by the U.S. government. (The headquarters moved to the final location, at left, which is now a museum preserving and celebrating the history of women’s suffrage and equality.)
One thing that is so striking about the personal histories of Justice Ginsburg, Professor Kay, and the others such as Justice O’Conner and Judge Phyllis Kravitch (now a Senior Judge on the 11th Circuit) who led that generation of women in shattering the barriers to women in the profession is how similar their stories are in a few important respects. Each was at or near the top of her class at a top law school. Yet each had great difficulty getting jobs after law school commensurate with her performance, when all-male law firms refused to hire women. Ginsburg was not hired by firms in New York and was passed over for a clerkship by Justice Frankfurter despite a recommendation of Harvard’s Albert Sachs; O’Conner was passed over by California firms and only offered a job as a legal secretary (she chose instead to become a government attorney); Kravitch was passed over by Philadelphia firms and was told at her interview for a clerkship with a Supreme Court justice that he could not hire a woman because it would not “look right.” That the efforts of these women and many more like them so profoundly reformed institutions and social practices, despite such barriers, is simply remarkable. Yet, as the panel and discussion on Sunday titled “The More Things Change…: Exploring Solutions to Persisting Discrimination in Legal Academia”, made clear, it is critical that these reflections on past accomplishments not lapse into self-congratulatory nostalgia but rather inspire continued efforts to see and remedy present barriers to equality, including those within our own control in the academy.