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Susan Estrich: On Her Shoulders, In Her Shoes

Ailing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an inspiration to a generation of women lawyers.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is small in stature, but she has very big shoulders. Alongside a generation of women lawyers, I stand on them, with gratitude and pride. The news that the only woman on the U.S. Supreme Court has been hospitalized for surgery for pancreatic cancer brings an opportune moment to say thank you.

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich
Pancreatic is bad. No question about that. But as Steve Jobs, Patrick Swayze and my dear friend, Nancy Daly Riordan, have proved, it is not, or at least not necessarily, the six-month death sentence it once was. Hopefully, Ginsburg will have many productive years left. The thoughts and prayers of a nation, and especially its legion of women lawyers, are with her.

It may help her recovery, if only a little, to know how important she has been to us. Ginsburg came to Harvard Law School as a student in the days when you could literally count the number of women students on two hands. She was one of nine women in the class of 1956, a year behind her husband, Martin. She was a member of the Harvard law review for a year — one of the first women to be selected by the group that, 33 years later, elected Barack Obama as its president. And all the while she cared for her baby daughter and ailing husband, who spent his third year of law school fighting cancer while Ruth covered his classes. When he graduated and accepted a job in New York, she took her third year at Columbia Law School, where she graduated tied for first in her class.

But as “a woman, a Jew and a mother to boot,” neither the law firms nor the appellate judges came calling with job offers. Ginsburg clerked for U.S. District Judge Edmund Palmieri before joining the faculty of Rutgers Law School and later becoming the first tenured woman at Columbia Law School. She not only taught sex discrimination law, she created it, as the first head of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and the author of main and friend-of-the-court briefs on virtually every important sex discrimination case of the 1970s.

She walked the walk and talked the talk. She hid her second pregnancy from her colleagues lest it cost her tenure. She balanced motherhood, marriage and career, and insisted on equality. She was not as liberal as some liberal judges would have liked, not as radical as some radical feminists thought she should be, but her commitment to equality was, and is, unwavering.

In the (can it be?) 30 years since I have been teaching law and in the 25 that I have been teaching “her” cases in my own sex discrimination classes, I have taught and moderated and participated in the heated debates about whether women should seek equality with men as the standard, or whether our goal should be to recognize that in many ways women are different and those differences must be acknowledged if women are to fulfill their potential.

I remember the especially vigorous debates within the ACLU itself about the issue of maternity leave and whether it advanced women’s cause or set us back to have “special” rules, even seemingly generous ones, based on motherhood. The fact that there were so many women sitting around the table debating these questions is, in many ways, Ginsburg’s greatest legacy. She has always been a woman to promote other women, offering her slim shoulders to any and all.

I wish her many more productive and fulfilling years on the court. And when it is her time to step down, it is in no small measure thanks to her that such legal giants as Harvard Dean and Solicitor General-nominee Elena Kagan will be there to fill her shoes. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a small woman with very big shoes, who has labored a lifetime to ensure there will be women to fill them.

Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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