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Ginsburg’s best lines are in neither court nor opinions

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her Supreme Court chambers in Washington, July 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

Friday’s theatrical release of a documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsburg got me thinking about what I regard as the women’s rights attorney cum Supreme Court justice’s two most memorable statements, neither of which came in a courtroom or an opinion.

The first, which I recall for its humor, came during her 1993 Senate confirmation hearing for the high court, when she explained why she chose to call the evil she fought as a lawyer “gender” rather than “sex” discrimination:

In the 1970s when I was (teaching) at Columbia (University law school) and writing briefs, articles and speeches about distinctions based on sex, I had a bright secretary. She said one day, ‘I have been typing this word, sex, sex, sex,  over and over. Let me tell you, the audience you are addressing, the men you are addressing’ – and they were all men in the appellate courts in those days – ‘the first association of that word is not what you are talking about. So I suggest that you use a grammar-book term. Use the word ‘gender.’ It will ward off distracting associations.’

The second, which I recall for what it conveys about the pain wrought by gender bias, came just weeks earlier in the White House Rose Garden, when Ginsburg paid tribute to her late mother — the bravest and strongest person I have know — in thanking President Bill Clinton for the Supreme Court nomination:

I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons.

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