To describe an hour in the presence of Justice Ginsburg is on one level to paint the image of a diminutive, aged, Jewish lady from Brooklyn able to tell a quiet story with a wry aside. But on the level that matters, leadership, it is to describe the lioness on the savannah, head into the wind, with the pride sunning around her in the grass that hides the dangers and pitfalls of the modern world. She has the mind of a supercomputer mixed with a lifetime of experiences spent raising the oppressed, particularly women, to equal status.
As readers of the blog know I have spent much of the last six months covering the election. It is largely a story of the absence of leadership. To suddenly find myself in the presence of true leadership, not the loud advertised kind, but the quiet iron-willed kind that achieves quantifiable results raised my spirits. It reminded me of why our government is not always dysfunctional and why we can and do achieve great things.
Because brilliant people who could become wealthy beyond measure lay down that career to devote themselves to public service for the good of the country not themselves. I suspect it is really that last clause, “not themselves”, that has Governor Romney in trouble in recent days.
But Justice Ginsburg did not start her career in demand. Like Justice O’Connor before her, when Justice Ginsburg graduated from law school no one would hire her. She was the mother of a four year old in the 1950s.
She recounted without bitterness against those who discriminated against her, but rather gratefulness and glee, how her law professor threatened a federal judge in order to secure her first job. As job followed job, she began to litigate gender cases. She told the stories in matter of fact style as if she was in a neutral courtroom simply pointing out the obvious to rooms full of slightly misguided men open to new ideas. All of it interspersed with funny stories about running to bathrooms in other buildings because courtrooms and buildings had no bathrooms for women.
The reality was of course far more vicious. The courtroom was full almost exclusively of men. Women were scarcely lawyers, for decades prohibited or discouraged from sitting on juries, and almost completely absent from the bench until the 1970s. I can imagine the four letter words flowing around her as men adjusted to the uppity little woman with big ideas.
But for Justice Ginsburg those indignities were nothing compared to the trauma of many of her clients before the law. Interestingly, some of her cases that established gender equality were representing men. What seems obvious today was not so obvious in the early 1970s – a widow received social security survivor benefits but not a widower as one of many examples.
I think my favorite story was how in law school professors in the 1950s and 1960s always called on women law students when they needed a quick right answer. The professors knew that women were under such pressure to achieve that they were always over prepared. By the 1970s her colleagues in the law professor business were bemoaning that women were as unprepared as men.
Leaders overcome problems. Leaders do not issue excuses, they focus harder on what really matters. Justice Ginsburg did not worry about the discrimination against her personally, she overcame it, then she changed the world so those that followed did not face it.
What was present in Boulder on Wednesday, September 20, 2012 was a diminutive, aged, Jewish lady from Brooklyn able to tell a quiet story with a wry aside whose voice rang like FDR and Reagan. If she and Justice Scalia agree 62% of the time, perhaps the rest of the government could agree at least that often. Because actually generating change, actually freeing women and men to achieve based on their merits, is real leadership.