Remembering his colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week, Chief Justice John Roberts said this: “Her voice in court and in our conference room was soft, but when she spoke, people listened.”
Indeed, Ginsburg cultivated that powerful public voice and took full advantage of it, especially in her later years as her fame and following grew, by giving speeches — to law students and legal professionals, to women’s organizations, at philanthropic events and college commencements.
As an undergraduate at Cornell in the 1950s, Ginsburg had been a student in Vladimir Nabokov’s famous European Literature class. In later years, she credited Nabokov for influencing her writing style.
“Words could paint pictures,” she would said, quoting him. “Choosing the right word, and the right word order could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.”
As a public speaker, Ginsburg also benefitted from Nabokov’s advice: “I seek the right word and word order,” she once said. “And I use the ‘read aloud’ test to check whether I have succeeded.'”
“Her voice was soft, but when she spoke, people listened.”
One of Ginsburg’s favorite topics on the podium was women’s progress in the legal profession. She loved telling the story of the trailblazing Belva Lockwood, one of the first female lawyers in the US, and a candidate for US president twice in the 1880s.
In this speech on the Speaking While Female Speech Bank, delivered at a January 2008 Supreme Court Fellows Dinner in Washington DC, Ginsburg explained how Lockwood overcame roadblocks, using “wit, ingenuity, and sheer force of will to unsettle society’s conceptions of women as weak in body and mind.”
Prominently on display at Ginsburg’s Supreme Court chambers was a replica of the vote sheet recording the Supreme Court’s initial refusal to grant membership to Lockwood, and one of many derisive cartoons that were published during her presidential runs.
“She was a woman of sense and steel,” Ginsburg said. “Along with legions of others, I am inspired by her example, and elated by the progress of our society toward full and equal citizenship stature for men and women.”
Muller v. Oregon was another of Ginsburg’s favorite speech topics — a landmark Supreme Court case with a complicating twist. Ginsburg lauded the legal strategy underlying the case even though she disagreed with the ruling, which said that because women were “dependent upon man,” their rights to work shorter hours should be protected by the state.
Ginsburg loved to tell the story of the National Consumers League, led by the remarkable social reformer Florence Kelley (pictured). It was Kelley who persuaded Louis Dembitz Brandeis, before he himself became a Supreme Court justice, to argue the Muller v Oregon case.
Brandeis relied on his sisters-in-law, Josephine and Pauline Goldmark (Josephine was Florence Kelley’s associate at the National Consumers League) to marshal an abundance of facts and information on the dangers to health and safety from excessive hours at labor, with an emphasis women in the workforce. That data made up 98 of the 113 pages in the brief Brandeis presented to the Supreme Court.
Ginsburg appreciated the persuasive power of the evidence of the harm done, as she put it, by “20th century conditions when women labored long into the night in sweat shop operations.” But she disagreed with the Court’s decision, because it perpetuated the view that women should be treated differently from men under the law.
As she put it in her 2009 speech on the Muller v. Oregon decision at Rutgers-Newark Law School:
“Having grown up in years when women, by law or custom, were protected from a range of occupations, including lawyering, and from serving on juries, I am instinctively suspicious of women-only protective legislation. Family-friendly legislation, I believe, is the sounder strategy.“
Ginsburg often used her public voice to champion women she admired in history who also used their voices: Belva Lockwood, the Goldmark sisters, Gloria Steinem, Sandra Day O’Connor, Henrietta Szold, Emma Lazarus,, nd many more.
And she often quoted the 19th century abolitionist and speaker Sarah Grimké: “I ask not favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on the ground which God designed us to occupy.”
“I am elated by the progress of our society toward full and equal citizenship stature for men and women.”
During her long, extraordinary legal career, Ginsburg adhered to the early lesson learned from Nabokov and chose her words with precision and care.
(Photo: Wake Forest University School of Law)
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