June 01, 2019 Feature

An Interview with Justice Ginsburg

Hon. Elaine Bucklo (Originally published Winter 2011)

View downloadable PDF of article.

EB: Can you talk a little about the influence that your parents had on you and on your career?

RBG: My mother was perhaps the most intelligent person I knew, but she lived in an age when a man felt dishonored if his wife worked. She died at age 48 after battling cervical cancer for four years. One of my most pleasant childhood memories is of my mother reading to me. When I could read on my own, she would take me on an excursion, a weekly excursion, to the library. She would leave me in the children’s section while she got her hair done next door, then pick me up with the three books I had selected to bring home that week.

EB: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a lawyer?

RBG: In my day, the safe occupation for a well-educated girl was to be a teacher, and I anticipated that I would be a high school history teacher. But I attended Cornell at a bad time for our country. It was the early fifties, the heyday of Senator Joe McCarthy. I took courses with, and was a research assistant for, a great teacher of constitutional law for undergraduates, Robert Cushman, and as his research assistant, one of my tasks was to follow the latest blasts of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Internal Security Committee. From that experience, I gained two impressions. First, our nation was straying from its most basic values, particularly the right to speak without Big Brother Government looking over your shoulder. Second, there were courageous lawyers who defended people targeted by the congressional committees. The idea Professor Cushman planted was that law might be a profession that would suit me well, one that could equip you to use your talent to make things a little better for your community.

So I took the LSAT in my junior year in college. My husband, who was a year ahead of me, in fact took the LSAT later and achieved a near-perfect score. My family had some misgivings about my pursuit of a law degree. But when I married Marty within days after graduating from college, my family was content: If I couldn’t get a job, I would have a man to support me. So far from being an impediment, marriage turned out to be an advantage to my pursuit of a legal education. So did having a child before I entered law school.

Weeks before we married, Marty was called into service. He had been in the ROTC at the tail end of the Korean War. We spent the entire two years of his service in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Jane was 14 months old when I started law school. I think one of the reasons I did so well as a law student was I was not overwhelmed, as many of my classmates were, by the rigors of the first year. I went to school in the morning and came home at 4 o’clock in the afternoon when our nanny left. The next few hours were Jane’s time. Something outside law studies was very important in my life. Jane was a respite from the law books. I think I used my studying time more efficiently than my classmates because I had home and childcare responsibilities.

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