At the Women's Conference: "The Supremes" (Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg)
This year’s California Women’s Conference was full of newsmakers and made some news of its own. But while Meg Whitman, Michelle Obama and Oprah were the speakers that made it to our local newscasts, the session I most looked forward to seeing was the conversation between the country’s first two women on the Supreme Court: Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Moderator Diane Sawyer compared O’Connor’s nomination to the Court with the 1969 moon landing.“They will walk on the stage, and what they are bringing with them are the mountains they’ve already scaled,” she said.
The Supreme Court began its 2010-11 session on October 4 with a new female justice, bringing the current total to three.
“I looked up at the bench on which I sat for 25 years and what did I see? On the far right, a woman. On the left side, a woman. And in the middle, a woman. And it was dazzling,” said O’Connor.
“For the first time, the public can see we are really there to stay. Not one at a time curiosities,” added Ginsburg. “ In the years I served with Sandra, every year without fail, one lawyer or another called me 'Justice O’Connor.' And we really don’t look alike. And this year, I am confident no one will call Justice Kagan ''Justice Ginsburg' or 'Justice Sotomayor.'”
“So how many women is enough?” asked Sawyer.
“Nine,” Ginsburg answered, to laughter and applause. “There were nine men there for a long time, so why not nine women?”
And why not? As Sawyer pointed out in her introduction, the Court carried on for its first 191 years as an all-male institution, and more than a decade passed after O’Connor’s appointment before she was joined by Ginsburg. Their appointments were historic, but no more so than the path each woman traveled to get there.
After passing the bar, O'Connor struggled to find a job, even though she served on the Stanford Law Review.
"I could not get a single interview," she reminisced. "When I called the office, they said we don’t hire women lawyers. And I finally had to go through a friend. And he looked at my resume, he said we don’t hire women lawyers. But how well do you type? I had to work at half pay and have my desk with the secretaries, and that was my deal. But I loved my job."
Over on the East Coast, Ginsburg was living a parallel life.
"Law firms would post a sign that said 'Men Only,' and we accepted that as part of the territory. The world was so different. I was at Harvard law school for the first two years; there were two buildings with classrooms and only one of them had a women’s bathroom. You could understand how tough it would be if you were in the wrong building," she said.
That reminded O'Connor of her arrival at the Supreme Court. "There was no women’s rest room and we had to negotiate to have one of the men's rooms divided so we could have one. Every sign on the parking lot was marked 'Mr. Justice So and So' and they had to take out the Mr. so now it said 'Justice So and So.'"
Sawyer asked the Justices to shed some light on this important -- and little understood -- branch of government: "What is it like to debate the issues?"
"The Supreme Court is truly a remarkable institution, a place where you to persuade the others through reasoning…where reasoning tries to prevail and I think that’s admirable," O'Connor answered.
"Unlike the Executive and Legislative branch, we do have to give reasons for everything we do," Ginsburg added,.
As a casual observer, I was most surprised by Ginsburg's description of how well all the justices get along -- even those at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
"Another characteristic of the court which you might not discern from reading our opinions is how tremendously collegial we are, how we genuinely care about, respect and like each other," she said. "So if you read a sparkling opinion from Justice Scalia about my opinion from which he dissents… when I was ill, my colleagues rallied around me. And that’s what made it possible to get through my cancers and the death of my partner, my colleagues have done everything to make me understand that they care."
Both justices recently lost their husbands after more than 50 years of marriage, and both credited their spouses for giving them the support they needed during a time when it was rare for a woman to pursue a professional career. Ginsburg said that when she and her husband met (as teenagers), he was the only man she'd known who cared that she had a brain.
"He was also a super chef, and he said it was my cooking that made him like that," she laughed. "My kids phased me out of the kitchen. So for the last 30 years I have not cooked a meal. My daughter comes once a month and she makes enough meals to fill my freezer and the next month she comes back."
O'Connor always knew she wanted to work, and her husband accepted that. "He was always supportive of every move I made. But John was not a cook. I was the cook," she said.
The discussion turned to Justice Sonia Sotomayor's controversial statement about being a wise Latina woman. "Do you think women bring something unique and singular in the reason process?" asked Sawyer.
"I think in most legal issues, a wise old woman and a wise old man will come to the same conclusion," O'Connor said.
"We all bring to the table our life experience," Ginsburg said. "Part of mine is that I have grown up female. My male colleagues don’t have that experience. I grew up in Brooklyn new York, Sandra grew up on a ranch." She thinks their opinions are more informed because "all together we have such a wealth of experience, more so than when the court all looked alike."
Near the end of the session, Justices Sotomayor and Elena Kagan paid tribute to O'Connor and Ginsburg via videotape. Sawyer asked if they had any parting words for the group.
O'Connor, who retired from the bench in 2005 to care for her husband who was ailing from Alzheimer's, said she hoped the country would work together to find a cure for the disease.
Ginsburg had the final word. "if I could design any permanent action program in the world it would be one for men, to promote the association of men with children. My dream is that every child in the world would grow up with two loving parents. And women will be truly liberated when men take as much responsibility for bringing up the next generation as women."
She is also a contributor to MOMocrats.
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