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Justice Ginsburg reflects on her career, and the future of gender equity, at Roberts Lecture

February 13, 2018

In a wide-ranging discussion Feb. 12 that covered the #MeToo movement, her judicial decisions, and her hopes for the next generation of advocates, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shared her reflections on 25 years as a member of the Supreme Court during Penn Law’s Owen J. Roberts Memorial Lecture.

The lecture was held at the National Constitution Center, where Ginsburg spoke with the NCC’s President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen. The Roberts Lecture was established in 1956 and is named for former Supreme Court Justice and Penn Law Dean Owen J. Roberts.

“We celebrate Justice Ginsburg’s 25 years on the Supreme Court,” said Ted Ruger, Dean of Penn Law and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law, “as well as groundbreaking contributions to American jurisprudence both while on the court and in her tremendous career as a legal scholar, as a litigator, and as a lower court judge.”

Justice Ginsburg was introduced by Penn President Amy Gutmann, who — noting Ginsburg’s recent prominence as a cultural icon — declared that “being a judicial rock star is not an oxymoron.”

During her conversation with Rosen, Ginsburg noted that even when litigation for sexual harassment became allowed under Title VII, women were still hesitant to come forward with sexual harassment claims because they were afraid they wouldn’t be believed. The #MeToo movement, she said, has changed that.

“My hope is not just that it is here to stay,” she said, “but that it is as effective for the woman who works as a maid in a hotel as it is for Hollywood stars.”

Ginsburg also discussed the power of dissenting opinions, which she divided into two categories: statutory and constitutional. She noted that her dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. cleared the way for the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. “You can write a statutory dissent like that because congress can fix it,” she said.

She explained that constitutional cases don’t have the same legislative solutions, but that “we have had a long tradition of dissents becoming the law of the land,” with the dissent of one generation becoming the opinion of the court in the next.

In the course of her career, Ginsburg has also seen a change in the gender dynamics in society, she said. She noted that her male law clerks are now taking parental leave, and she also pointed out that more women are running for elected office in 2018.

At the conclusion of her remarks, Ginsburg urged Millennials to push forward not on their own, but “in alliance with like-minded people.”

“I can see the spirit of my grandchildren and their friends,” she said, “and I have faith in this generation just coming to adulthood.”

Earlier in the day, Penn Law hosted a symposium honoring Ginsburg’s impact on American jurisprudence. The panelists included Marcia Greenberger L’70, founder and co-president of the National Women’s Law Center; Dahlia Lithwick, Senior Editor at Slate and host of the podcast Amicus; Serena Mayeri, Professor of Law and History at Penn Law; the Honorable John Owens of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; and the Honorable Jed S. Rakoff, Senior United States District Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. 

In her remarks, Professor Mayeri traced the themes that connected Ginsburg’s work as an advocate with her work as a Supreme Court justice: a theory of equal citizenship that intertwines race and gender equality, women’s ability to control their reproductive lives as central to gender equality, and gender egalitarianism.

“No one has done more than Justice Ginsburg in the twentieth century to make discrimination against women and men — in her words — stunningly anachronistic,” said Mayeri.

Greenberger discussed how even from her earliest advocacy, Ginsburg understood the complex relationship between race, gender, and class. “She understood intersectionality to her core from her earliest days,” said Greenberger.

“Justice Ginsburg’s greatest influence, not just on me but on my colleagues on the federal bench, have been her opinions over the last twenty years,” said Rakoff, who explained how, when he represented four women in an early gender discrimination law suit, all the necessary legal theories had already been laid out in the work of then-professor Ginsburg.

Owens, a former clerk of Ginsburg’s stressed her ability to work tirelessly on an issue to get to the right decision. “I’ve never met someone who tries so hard to get to that answer,” he said.

And Lithwick urged the audience to be critical of the “Notorious RBG” figure that has become persistent in popular culture to the detriment of a valuable lesson. She explained that there is a “mismatch between the view of her as a fiery, rageful feminist on the court, and someone who is an institutionalist, who is tactical, who is respectful.”

“I think we’re missing the much better story when we chase the story of someone who is a firebrand,” Lithwick noted.

“I think what Justice Ginsburg has modeled is a much more fruitful and thoughtful approach.”


Watch the 2018 Owen J. Roberts Memorial Lecture with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the National Constitution Center below. 


Watch the Symposium Honoring U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Penn Law below.