PARK CITY — When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival about her own experiences with sexual harassment, the 84-year-old noted "we didn’t have a name for it" in the 1950s.
She was introduced by Sundance founder Robert Redford.
“It’s an honor for me because I’ve had such a long history of admiration for (Ginsburg),” he said. “… I think she enhances the quality of our festival just by being here.”
That sentiment was echoed by John Nein, Sundance Film Festival senior programmer, who introduced the event’s moderator, NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Totenberg and Ginsburg met in 1971 and have become close friends over the years.
Totenberg opened the interview by asking the justice if she faced sexual harassment as a young woman.
“Yes,” Ginsburg said. “Every woman of my vintage knows what sexual harassment is, although we didn’t have a name for it.”
She recalled that as a young student at Cornell University in the 1950s, her then-chemistry professor offered her a practice test the day before an examination. When she took the real test, she found it was the same as the practice test.
“I knew exactly what he wanted in return,” she said.
When Totenberg pressed her on how she handled the situation, Ginsburg said she went to his office and asked him: “‘How dare you? How dare you do this?’ And that was the end of that.”
Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1956, one of just nine women in a class of over 500, where she served on the Harvard Law Review. She finished her degree at Columbia Law School after moving to New York City with her husband, Martin Ginsburg, graduating No. 1 in her class. She was the first woman to work on both Harvard and Columbia law reviews. But in spite of high recommendations from her professors and her class ranking, she struggled to find a clerkship after graduation.
Gender discrimination would become a scourge that she would fight against — both personally and professionally — for much of her career.
In 1970, Ginsburg co-founded the first legal journal that focused on women’s rights, and two years later co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, becoming general counsel to the organization the following year.
When asked how she feels about the #MeToo movement, Ginsburg replied, “I think it’s about time. For so long women were silent, thinking there was nothing they could do about it. Now the law is on the side of the women and men who encounter harassment, and that’s a good thing.”
Ginsburg knows from personal as well as professional experience what the law can do for those experiencing harassment and discrimination.
She shared that as a new professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, she was paid less than a male counterpart who started at the same time. She said the dean of the school told her, “‘Ruth, he has a wife and two children to support. You have a husband with a good paying job in New York.’ That was the very year that the Equal Pay Act was enacted,” she said.
Ginsburg fought the school, gaining higher pay for herself and her female colleagues, as well as advocating for equal pay and rights for Columbia University’s female maintenance staff a few years later.
In addition to her legal work, Ginsburg is a noted patron of the arts, particularly opera, sharing with the audience that she always wanted to be an opera diva, but for one problem.
“I'm a monotone,” she said.
Ginsburg spoke with affection and tenderness about her husband, an attorney and excellent cook who passed away in 2010 from cancer.
“I certainly wouldn’t be here today without Marty because he made me feel that I was better than I thought I was. When I went to law school, I was concerned those first few weeks whether I would make it, but Marty was telling all of his buddies that ‘My wife will be on law review.’ That’s just how he was.”
She also remembered another great legal mind, former-fellow Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she had a close friendship in spite of their differing opinions. Scalia died in 2016, and Ginsburg said she loved him for “his sense of humor."
“The first time I heard then-Professor Scalia speak, I disagreed with a good deal of what he said, but I was captivated with the way he said it. … We both really care about families, and we share a love of beautiful music — especially opera.”
Ginsburg, who was appointed to the court in 1993 when she was 60, is currently the oldest Supreme Court justice. But, as Totenberg noted, she has already filled slots for her law clerks through the 2020 term — which is just as the justice wants it.
“As long as I can do the job full steam, I will be here,” she said.