Pretty much everything has been said about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that anyone and everyone would care to know. I’m not going to repeat the encomiums, the recitation of all that she did to advance the cause of equal protection, to forcefully advocate for the cause of women and men. Others have said those things much more eloquently than I ever could. I know that, at my age, I will not see the likes of her in my remaining lifetime.
What can I say about her that hasn’t already been said? I can talk about how sex discrimination affected my career and how, if we aren’t vigilant, we could back-pedal (or the favored term of the day “walk back”) the progress that has been made, hard-fought progress, hard-won progress, the incremental progress that Ginsburg favored, to build upon what had been won.
I am a “second wave” feminist, who in the early 1970s, decided to go to law school. My father, a physician and never a bastion of enlightenment or progressive thought, said that I should be a legal secretary rather than a lawyer. Thanks, Dad, for that vote of confidence. But that was the thinking at the time. Women should take subordinate roles in the workplace because they were too delicate, too fragile, too emotional, too (choose your adjective) to be subjected to the rough-and-tumble world of the legal profession.
I remember when the “help wanted” ads were divided between men and women, and most, if not all, of the job opportunities for women were secretaries, nurses, and teachers. Look how hard it was for Ginsburg to get a job when she graduated at the top of her law school class at Columbia. Being a woman and being Jewish didn’t help her cause in the late 1950s. New York firms told her that they didn’t hire women; it was unstated but understood that they also didn’t hire Jews.
It wasn’t surprising that my law school graduating class was 20 percent women, given that the law school had been started by a woman. When we graduated in 1976, there were very few jobs open to us. Some of us started our own firms, worked for small firms, or went into government practice. Those were pretty much the only opportunities available to us all those years ago.
Sex discrimination was rampant and unabashed. After working at a district attorney’s office for a year or so, trying cases back-to-back, the then president of the State Bar of California announced at a meeting that I attended that women did not make good trial lawyers. Probate, family law, those were the areas that women lawyers belonged in, he said, not prosecuting pukes or representing business interests. Phooey on him, I thought.
When I moved to private practice, I was mistaken for the court reporter or the social worker, but never the attorney. Taking notes at meetings where I was the only woman lawyer was not why I went to law school. To add insult to injury in my first in-house job in the early 1980s, I was told that I didn’t have as high a title or would make as much money as a recently hired man because he “had a family.”
It’s been a long haul for women in the profession, and it’s still an uphill battle every day. One recent report says that the pay gap between male and female lawyers in Biglaw has not narrowed but widened. Swell. Sisyphus schlepping that rock up the mountain has nothing on us.
Ginsburg did many mitzvahs for all of us who have sought equal protection under the law. Mitzvah is Hebrew for “a good deed.” She performed many mitzvahs, both on the bench and as a tireless advocate.
It’s fitting that she died on the first night of the Jewish New Year. Is there symbolism that her death came when it did? I think there is. The Jewish tradition of doing good, of making a difference in the world could not have had a better advocate than Ginsburg. She believed in “We the People,” she believed in justice for all, she fought hard to make this world a better place.
What was also so admirable about her was her ability to forge friendships with people with whom she disagreed judicially. Exhibit A was her enduring friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. Two people with widely divergent judicial philosophies could nevertheless come together as friends. How I wish that people would look at that friendship in this divisive era and learn from it.
She believed that persuasiveness is not the same as partisanship and thought that minds could be changed with thoughtful analysis and understanding the issues of how discrimination affected women and men. Every case that the lawyer Ginsburg brought to the Court was heard by men who were clueless about the challenges that women faced trying not just to get ahead, but just to get a rung on the opportunity ladder.
It’s never been easy being a woman lawyer, and I think the same holds true today. Ask any woman whether she thinks it’s easy. It may be easier (a relative term) today than when future Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ginsburg finished law school and looked for employment, but I don’t think that any woman would say that it’s easy today.
Ginsburg made a huge difference in how society viewed equal protection: equal protection of the laws for gender equality, equal pay, same-sex marriage, disability rights, voting rights, reproductive rights, and the like. She used vivid language to tell the Court to unlock the doors that thwarted women, that limited dreams and ambitions. She fought for the things she cared about and showed how to bring others to join her. She exemplified tikkun olam, to repair the world.
I owe her a debt of gratitude that I can never repay, but I can pay it forward. So can we all. May her memory be a blessing.
Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at [email protected].