Inspiration, these days, is welcome from any source. Last night I found plenty in a 118-year old building listening to an 84 year-old jurist. It was a straightforward affirmation of basic values that resonate with me: democracy, civil rights, fairness, hard work, and discipline.
Roosevelt University’s conference, The American Dream Reconsidered, provided an opportunity for Judge Ann Claire Williams of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit to interview Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Auditorium Theater, an Adler & Sullivan architectural gem. The house was full – nearly 4,000 attended. The crowd was enthusiastic and appreciative. Ginsburg has achieved pop culture status. It was not a Notorious RBG fest or a partisan slam. The topics were personal and serious. We were treated to a chronological walk through Ginsburg’s life and her recollections of family, home and profession career: as student, teacher, lawyer and judge. Slides accompanied the questions and answers. Her struggles and her successes, the long arc of her career and her battles against discrimination, are heroic. It was moving. It also gave a perspective of the tremendous changes that have taken place in the last 80 years and the great advances in civil rights, especially for women. Ginsburg stressed that there is more opportunity today – and while there is still much to be done – there is no better time.
Ginsburg is tough, sharp and disciplined. She credits her mother, who died of cancer when Ginsburg was finishing up high school in Brooklyn, with her work ethic and values. She also said that her mother gave her sage advice that she follows to this day: “Don’t let negative emotions – anger, envy, and regret control you.” Her parents, neither of whom had higher education, were immigrants who had faith in the power of education to improve lives.
The love of Ginsburg’s life, Marty, was a fellow student at Cornell. He had a girlfriend at Harvard. She had a boyfriend at Columbia. The weeks at Cornell were long and cold, Ginsburg said, and Marty and her were best friends. He said that he was the first man to care about her brain. Their marriage lasted 56 years until Marty’s death. Ginsburg gave credit to her mother-in-law for helping the marriage. On her wedding day, Ginsburg’s mother-in-law pulled her aside into her bedroom and gave her a box of ear plugs. “Sometimes it helps a marriage to be a little deaf” she told her daughter-in-law. Ginsburg said that she still uses ear plugs.
The recurring theme in the talk was gender and the consistent battle to make sure that women secured equal rights. Ginsburg has approached the issue as a woman, a mother, a scholar, an advocate and as a jurist. She faced discrimination as a woman. She faced discrimination as a Jew. She faced discrimination as a mother. Ginsburg reminded the audience that not that long ago, pregnant women were fired as a matter of course. Her underlying sense of fairness, the rationality of equal rights, informs and affirms her fundamental belief in the basic civil rights. She referenced Thurgood Marshall and his faith in incremental but steady change through the courts to improve civil rights.
She talked about her friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. They disagreed vehemently about matters of constitutional interpretation. However, they respected each other, liked each other, and were bound together by a deep love of the institution they both served, the Supreme Court, and the United States Constitution. The core held them – despite wildly different perspectives on matters of law – and helped them work together. That sense of shared purpose is much needed today.
I left with three observations.
First, like many smart people, Ginsburg is kind and considerate of others. She reaches out to younger people, to colleagues, to family and friends. A sense of service, personal and professional, explains who she is and how she behave. She talked about her clients and the people who came before the court as people.
Second, like many successful people, Ginsburg is extremely hardworking and disciplined. Her father-in-law counseled her on the importance of making up one’s mind when setting a goal – and then simply working and working and working to make it possible. Ginsburg exemplifies an old-school work ethic. She is relentless. And she made sure that we knew at the end of the talk that she believes that there is more work to be done.
Third, what makes Ginsburg popular and relevant and able to fill an auditorium is something we need and deeply appreciate: integrity and honor. While we may not always agree with her, there is no doubt that she is a good person, motivated by good values. In the words of her parents and the Yiddish of Brooklyn, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a mensch. And she is very inspirational.