September 23, 2014

Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 Discusses Her Experience at Cornell Nearly 60 Years Ago

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Corrections appended

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 spoke about her time on the Hill and religious polarization on campus in a conversation Thursday with Gretchen Ritter ’83, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at The New-York Historical Society.

Ginsburg, a member of the Democratic Party, is a strong proponent of women’s rights and same-sex marriage. In August 2013, she became the first Supreme Court justice to officiate a same-sex wedding.

During her speech, Ginsburg — who came to the University as a first-generation college student from a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn — said she had only heard of Cornell through the summer camp she attended.

“I had heard about Cornell from the waitresses who worked at the lodge at the summer camp,” she said. “But I wasn’t prepared for the incredible beauty of the place, especially in the fall and in the spring.”

When asked by Ritter what it was like to be a Jewish woman at Cornell 60 years ago — and housed with other women along the same hallway in Clara Dickson Hall — Ginsburg said that this arrangement could have been “happenstance,” or in fact intentional.

“It could have been that whoever arranged for housing wanted us to be comfortable, or it could’ve been that they wanted to set us apart from the others,” she said. “But there was great chemistry among the seven of us [housed together] and we have remained friends through the years.”

Ginsburg, a member of the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority, also said she “did not appreciate” the extent to which there was religious separation when it came time to rush fraternities and sororities during her time at Cornell.

“There were Jewish fraternities [and] Jewish sororities as well as Christian fraternities and sororities and that’s the way it was,” she said. “I hope that has changed.”

According to Ginsburg, her passion for social justice came from a combination of the period in which she grew up and the research work she conducted under a professor at Cornell.

“I suppose that the earliest influence was growing up during World War II. … There was a red scare,” she said. “At Cornell, a professor was told that he could stay and do research but not teach because he belonged to a socialist group. I [also] had a professor for constitutional law and I worked as his research assistant. … He wanted me to appreciate that our country was strained from its most basic values.”

Ginsburg  — who was also a student of well-known novelist Vladimir Nabokov during her time at Cornell — also spoke on the influence he had on her life and work.

“Professor Nabokov changed the way I read [and] write,” she said. “Even when I’m drafting [High Court] opinions, thinking about how the word order should go, I remember him.”

When asked by Ritter if she had any words of advice to give students, Ginsburg said students should take advantage of the “diverse education” Cornell has to offer.

“Cornell is a school blessed with a fabulous faculty and I would advise students to take advantage of that [as well],” she said. “I went to law school after Cornell, but I’m very glad that I didn’t specialize in pre-law or anything like that. [My advice is] don’t be concerned — even if you’re in the engineering school, try to take advantage of a diverse education.”

The talk, which was invitation-only and took place at the New-York Historical Society in New York City, was attended by more than 400 people, according to a University press release.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s class year. She graduated in 1954. In addition, the story incorrectly stated that Ginsburg said “Cornell has a feminist faculty,” when in fact, she said, “Cornell has a fabulous faculty.”