When Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from law school in 1959, women made up 3% of lawyers in the US and there were no women judges on the federal courts of appeal. The most she could aspire to, the late justice tells us, in one of seven interviews that make up this timely and inspiring book, was to earn her living as a lawyer, but even that was no foregone conclusion. The story of Bader Ginsburg’s rise from one of nine women in her class at Harvard Law School to a justice on the supreme court and a beloved American figure, becomes no less astonishing the more times one revisits it.
Bader Ginsburg died in September this year, at the age of 87. This book, marketed as The Last Interview, is part of a series of interview compilations with late thinkers and writers that features, among others, James Baldwin, Nora Ephron and Hannah Arendt. It’s a wonderfully wide-ranging and unmediated way to engage with each subject and to be transported back to their earliest ventures in public life. When we meet Bader Ginsburg, it is as a 38-year-old speaking to the New York Times on the occasion of her accepting a professorship at Columbia University. The year is 1972 and it is the first time Columbia has chosen a woman for a full-time post higher than lecturer. Reading Bader Ginsburg’s comments gives one slight vertigo – to encounter her as a young woman and see, for a second, the entire arc of her life, right up to her death – and an intimacy with the justice that a more conventional retrospective might lack.
One also gets to see the evolution of a star. In that first interview, Bader Ginsburg displayed many of the qualities that would come to inspire, in her later years, not just respect, but a kind of devotion and a fame unusual for one in her line of work. When she graduated from Columbia Law School, having transferred there from Harvard, Bader Ginsburg tied for first place in her class, yet for a long time couldn’t find a job. At first, she tells the journalist, she thought there must be something wrong with her. “But then,” she said, “when I got so many rejections, I thought it couldn’t be they had no use for me — it had to be something else.”
No law firm, in 1959, wanted to hire a woman, even one as brilliant as Bader Ginsburg, and what is revealing about her comments on the matter is that even in 1972, she displayed the simultaneous mildness of tone and absolute refusal to be bullied that would mark her entire career. “The only confining thing for me is time,” she says, when asked by the journalist how she planned to deal with being the only woman on a faculty of men. “I’m not going to curtail my activities in any way to please them.”
The tone was, as Bader Ginsburg’s adversaries would discover, deceptive. In an interview in 2018, conducted by Nina Totenberg at the Sundance film festival, she revisits one of the first things she did when she joined Columbia: far from keeping her head down and avoiding confrontation, she immediately took on the university authorities for firing 25 women on staff who were working as maids, while keeping on all their male peers. “I went to the university vice-president,” says Bader Ginsburg, “and told him that the university was violating Title VII.” He replied: “Professor Ginsburg, Columbia has excellent Wall Street lawyers representing them and would you like a cup of tea?”
She didn’t back down. She took her own employers to court and got a temporary injunction to protect the women from being fired. Eventually, Columbia reversed its decision and, faced with public pressure to fire an equal number of men as women, decided in the end to fire no one. As Bader Ginsburg remarked drily in the interview, “faced with the necessity of having to drop about 10 men before they reached the first woman, they found a way to avoid laying off anyone”.
It was an extraordinarily bold move and the joy of hearing Bader Ginsburg recount this and other old battles, many of which I had never heard of before, acts as a rallying cry to be a bit braver in our own lives. The big set pieces are revisited, too, of course, including the early, frightful year at Harvard Law School, when her husband, Marty, was diagnosed with cancer. Thankfully he survived, but for the year of his treatment, Bader Ginsburg cared for him, raised their baby daughter, studied for her law degree and took notes so Marty didn’t fall behind in his own. Under tremendous pressure, she carried the entire family over the line.
It’s a virtue of the book that the interviews range from those focusing heavily on her judicial work, to one with, for example, a group of high-school students, in which Bader Ginsburg is much more playful, to the transcript of an interview she did at a synagogue in Washington DC, in which she talks about the importance of her faith. In the interview with the students, she refers to how, as a girl, she dreamed of becoming an opera singer; however, “in my grade school, I was put in with the – they were called sparrows as opposed to the robins, and I was told to mouth the words. So being a great diva was not in the cards for me.”
In another interview, Bader Ginsburg talks about how her son’s school would always call her, and never her husband, when there was a problem that required their attendance. She informed them, curtly, that their child had two parents and they should switch between them with demands. Suddenly, the principal’s office stopped calling. “I suspect,” says Bader Ginsburg, “that the school was reluctant to take a man away from his work – it wouldn’t hesitate to call a mother away from hers – anyway, there was no quick change in my son’s behaviour, but the calls came barely once a semester. And the reason was they had to think long and hard before asking a man to take time out of his work day to come to the school.”
We learn of what she thought about the meme the Notorious RBG, her friendship with the late, conservative justice Antonin Scalia, how she doesn’t sweat wrong decisions and how she formed her most striking dissenting opinions. As is often the case with interviews, it is the small, human moments that can reveal the most. At the end of Bader Ginsburg’s conversation at Sundance, Nina Totenberg, with whom she had been friends for years, tells a story about her. “When my late husband died,” says Totenberg, “and I started to date the doctor I am now married to, I remember walking down the hall one day with Justice Ginsburg, and I said, ‘Ruth, I’ve started to date a doctor in Boston.’ And in my mind’s eye, I remember her head spinning around and what she said was, ‘Details. I want all the details.’”
• Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Last Interview and Other Conversations is published by Melville House (£12.99)