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RBG: 'The pedestal you put women on is a cage'

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says gender-based discrimination confines what women can do.

Posted: Feb 12, 2018 5:31 PM
Updated: Feb 12, 2018 5:31 PM

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg believes the "#MeToo" movement will have "staying power" and that she doesn't worry about a serious backlash.

"It's too widespread," Ginsburg said in an interview with CNN's Poppy Harlow at Columbia University Sunday. "It's amazing," she added, "that for the first time, women are really listened to because sexual harassment had often been dismissed as 'well, she made it up.'"

When Harlow pressed whether Congress was acting quickly enough, Ginsburg paused. "This Congress is not ... I mean it's been very hard even to keep the government going lately," she said to laughter.

"My hope is that Congress will think about people -- where the United States population now is, and I am putting my faith in the millennials," Ginsburg added.

Harlow and Ginsburg held a wide-ranging discussion that also touched on sexism during the 2016 presidential campaign, attacks on the judiciary, the First Amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment and even blindspots on the current court.

RELATED: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with clerk hires, signals desire to outlast Trump

Asked directly whether sexism played a role in the last campaign, Ginsburg said, "I think it was difficult for Hillary Clinton to get by, in the macho atmosphere prevailing during that campaign ... And she was criticized in a way I think no man would have been criticized," she said.

"Sexism played a prominent part," Ginsburg said but stressed that she thought America was ready for a woman president and "will be the next time."

But then she stopped short.

"We should be careful about not getting me too much in the political arena," Ginsburg said to applause.

Attacks on the judiciary

In public, Ginsburg does not comment about President Donald Trump, who angrily tweeted during the campaign that her mind was "shot" after she criticized him. She later said she regretted making the comments.

But Ginsburg did respond to recent verbal attacks on the judiciary and said that the judiciary depends upon members of the bar and the public to help preserve the institution. An independent judiciary is one of the nation's "hallmarks," she said.

Harlow referenced comments made by now Supreme Court Justce Neil Gorsuch during his nomination process, when he told one senator last February that such attacks are "demoralizing and disheartening."

"Well, they are disheartening, yes. But there are people, lawyers, who speak out in defense of an independent judiciary, and point out how important that is to our system," Ginsburg said.

Ginsburg has been on a speaking tour of sorts during the winter recess of what is a momentous term. The justices have already heard arguments on cases concerning religious liberty, immigration, voting rights and digital privacy, and this spring they will take up the travel ban and potentially a case concerning DACA.

Ginsburg, the leader of the liberal wing on the court, will celebrate her 85th birthday this spring, as well as the 25th anniversary of her nomination by President Bill Clinton.

So far on and off the bench, she shows no signs of slowing down, actively participating at oral arguments. Last month she appeared in Park City, Utah, for the unveiling of a new documentary about her life co-produced by CNN. She is regularly greeted at speaking events with a standing ovation.

'Practice exam'

At her speaking events, she gives young women advice and tells the story of her rise in the law and the difficulties she encountered.

On Sunday, she recounted that as a student at Cornell University, she once asked a chemistry professor for extra help. He gave her a "practice exam" to help her. But the next day she learned that the practice exam was in fact the real exam. She was outraged.

"I knew just what he expected in return," she said. She went back to the professor and asked "how dare you?"

"There were many incidents like that, but in those days the attitude was, 'what can we do about it? Nothing. Boys will be boys.'"

After law school, she had a hard time finding a job. She had three strikes against her, she said. She was Jewish, she was a woman, and she had a baby.

That daughter, Jane, who is now a professor at Columbia, was in the audience as well as three of Ginsburg's grandchildren.

She said that she has "had it all" during her long life, but "not necessarily at one time."

Her professional life was buoyed by her marriage of 56 years to Martin Ginsburg, a noted tax lawyer who died in 2010.

RELATED: Judiciary leaders want action on preventing sexual misconduct in courts

When she was a young lawyer at the ACLU working on gender equality, her husband took an active role on the home front. He "phased" her out of the kitchen much to her children's delight because he was a far better cook.

She also spoke about the influence of her mother who died when she was in high school. "What is the difference between a book keeper in the garment district and a Supreme Court justice," she asked.

"One generation."

She said her mother armed her with the "strength to persist".

"I suppose she thought it would be fine if I met Prince Charming, but 'fend for yourself' was her message. Be independent."

Backs an Equal Rights Amendment

Ginsburg is still holding out for an Equal Rights Amendment to come along some day.

"Equal stature of men and women is as fundamental as the basic human rights," she said.

She said that while there is the equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment, "every Constitution in the world written since the year 1950 has the equivalent statement that men and women are people of equal citizenship stature."

Pointing to her granddaughters, she said: "I would like to be able to take out that pocket constitution and say to them, 'You see this statement of the equal stature of men and women is as fundamental as the basic human rights. The right to free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the equal stature of men and women.'"

She said it "belongs in the Constitution" and she is gratified that there have been efforts to revive the amendment."

Importance of free press

Harlow also asked her about the importance of the First Amendment and attacks on the press.

"It's been that way from the very beginning," Ginsburg said, noting that Thomas Jefferson was distressed at what the press was reporting, but he didn't think the press should be squelched.

"Do you think that those holding the highest offices now politically, think the press should be squelched?," Harlow asked.

"I will not respond to that question," Ginsburg said but added, "a free press is of tremendous importance to a society."

Collegiality on the Court

Of her current colleagues, she stressed that they get along.

"I have the best job in the world for a lawyer."

"I respect all of my colleagues and genuinely like most of them," she said. She noted "we are in this together."

But she talked about a dissent in an 2014 opinion concerning employer provided contraception and religious liberty. She said her male colleagues in the majority were blind to the fact that "contraceptive coverage was an essential part of health care for women." Ginsburg, Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. She said the majority suffered from a blind spot.

Is it still there?

"Yes," she allowed, "but less and less over time."

Harlow questioned when there will be enough female justices on the court, something Ginsburg is frequently asked. "When there are nine of course," she said with a twinkle.

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