Nominee proud of her long fight against sex bias

June 15, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from law school in 1959, having been at the top of her classes at both Harvard and Columbia, she found that universities wouldn't even consider her for a possible teaching job.

A Supreme Court justice turned her down for a clerkship on the basis of her sex.

And as she said yesterday in the White House Rose Garden, pointing out a certain irony as she was being nominated by President Clinton for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court: "Not a law firm in the entire city of New York bid for my employment."

As the wife and mother of two later blazed a legal trail against gender discrimination -- earning a reputation as the Thurgood Marshall of the women's movement -- Judge Ginsburg, 60, never wore those early experiences of sex bias on her sleeve.

A private, scholarly and reserved woman, the Carter-appointed U.S. Court of Appeals judge fought to break down those barriers through the force of her intellect, rather than any ideologically driven activism.

"She was the real intellectual frontierswoman in developing the theory of the Constitution that protects women," says a Washington lawyer, Michael Greenberger.

But as she sat at the table before the Supreme Court in the 1970s, arguing six landmark cases as special counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project -- often using cases where the plaintiffs were men to develop the legal strategy against gender discrimination -- everyone knew where she came from.

"Her struggles to find work when she graduated from law school were famous," says Diane Zimmerman, a law professor at New York University and a former student of Judge Ginsburg's. "Everybody knew what Ruth had gone through. She was the primary example of how unfair the profession was to women. She made up her mind she could do something about it for other women -- and she did it."

At Harvard, where she studied law from 1956 to 1958 after graduating from Cornell University, the dean invited the handful of women in her class to dinner at his home and asked why they were there taking the places of qualified men.

She transferred to Columbia in her last year when her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, a fellow lawyer, got a job in New York. Although she hoped to stay to teach, it would take 13 years -- after she served as a law clerk to Judge Edmund L. Palmieri, one of the few federal judges who would hire women, and a teaching job at Rutgers University Law School -- before Columbia would hire its first woman as a full professor.

In 1960, she tried to get a position as law clerk with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, but was denied the position because the jurist was uncomfortable hiring a woman, according to her colleagues and friends.

Some of her associates, including former students, describe her as cool and remote. "Clinton said he wanted someone with heart. That is not Ruth Bader Ginsburg," says one lawyer and former student. "She is smart and passionate, but she is aloof and standoffish."

But to a class of women who entered law school in the early to middle 1970s, she became an inspirational role model.

"When we looked around, Ruth was the person for us," says M. E. Freeman, a New York lawyer who graduated from Columbia in 1976. "Our mothers didn't do this. She was our role model. She had a husband. She had children. She was discriminated against. She was a source of inspiration to all of us."

Joanne Adlerstein, another woman in the class of '76, a class that included the first large wave of women into law schools, recalls walking into her professor's office, with her 9-month-old in a stroller, in a state of despair. "I talked to her about the pull I felt between the law and my family," says Ms. Adlerstein, the mother of three and a former assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey. "She said, 'Joanne, it can be done.' "

Indeed, at yesterday's White House ceremony, the Brooklyn native, who lives in the upscale Watergate apartments, made several references to her husband, her two children -- Jane Ginsburg, 37, like her mother a professor at Columbia Law School, and James Ginsburg, a law student at the University of Chicago and a classical records producer -- and her two grandchildren.

She noted thather husband has made it easy for her to stay out of the kitchen.

Aside from being the cook in the family, Mr. Ginsburg splits his time between a Washington law firm where he is a partner and the Georgetown University Law Center, where he is a tax law professor.

He also has been a longtime friend of and tax lawyer to Ross Perot. In fact, in return for his helping to manage deftly the Texas billionaire's bank account during the General Motors buyout of his computer company, Mr. Perot made a $1 million contribution to the law center in 1986 to endow a chair in Mr. Ginsburg's name.

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