The Law School life of the Notorious RBG

Really interesting and entertaining interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg via Slate Mag. The premise of the interview was to profile her relationship with the 9 other female classmates in a late 1950s Harvard Law School class that had over 500 men. The interviewers (Dahlia Lithwick) talked with RBG in detail about each of her female classmates, and the dynamics of their relationships – including how there was a sort of schism between those that were married and those that were not.

Well, in my first year, I was the only one who was married and had a child. I think Carol, I think she got married. And Alice got married at the end of her first year. So my first year, I was the only married woman in the class. And the only mother, because Rhoda [who was married] took her first year at Penn, and then she was in our second year.

Beyond the dynamics of the few females in this Harvard Law class, there was the relationship that the females had with the faculty and the Dean. The class regularly had dinner with the Law School Dean at the time, Erwin Griswold, as the Dean had a sincere advocacy for the success of women, even if his methods and approach went over like a lead balloon.

Anyway, [at the dinner], each of us had an escort. [The dean] arranged for somebody on the faculty to sit next to each of the women. And my escort was a very well-known Columbia Law School professor, Herb Wechsler.

I’m told that the escorts, before they came to Griswold’s home for dinner, went nearby to Judge [Calvert] Magruder’s house. Because the dean didn’t serve any alcohol, they went there first. There were many good things about Dean Griswold, including his bravery in the McCarthy era—in the book he wrote about the Fifth Amendment. But he didn’t have a sense of humor, and because he had been a proponent of the admission of women, he wanted to assure the doubting Thomases on the faculty that these women were going to do something worthwhile with their law degrees. So he asked that question, “Why are you here occupying a seat that could be held by a man?,” because he wanted to be armed with stories from the women themselves, about how they plan to make use of their law degrees, and not just waste this wonderful education they would get.

He didn’t have any sense that he was making the women feel uncomfortable about this. I don’t know if Flora told you about her answer, but as I remember it, she said, “Dean Griswold, there are X number of us. … There are 500 of them. What better place to find a man?

Yet after all the glass ceilings that RBG and her peers broke, and after all the progress that women have made in law – and other industry – the observation at the end of the article really struck me when the discussion turned to RBG’s perspective on how women today are facing similar challenges to those that she faced in the 1960s and 1970s, which in the eyes of a twenty-something in 2020, seems like the dark ages.

It’s an unconscious bias. It’s the expectation. You have a lowered expectation when you hear a woman speaking, I think that still goes on. That instinctively when a man speaks, he will be listened to, where people will not expect the woman to say anything of value. But all of the women in my generation have had, time and again, that experience where you say something at a meeting, and nobody makes anything of it. And maybe half an hour later, a man makes the identical point, and people react to it and say, “Good idea.” That, I think, is a problem that persists. Some of it is getting over unconscious bias by becoming conscious of it, which I thought … I’ve told the story about the symphony orchestra many times. People were so sure that they could tell the difference between a woman playing and a man, and when put to the test, when blindfolded, they could not.

Willis Reese was a law professor at Columbia Law School. And he said, there’s one thing he regrets about the old days. He said when the class was moving slowly, and you wanted to get a crisp right answer, “You called on a woman. She was always prepared.” And nowadays, he said, there’s no difference, the women are as unprepared as the men.