Justice Tells Women: ‘Rooting Out Unconscious Bias Is Much Harder’

By Phaedra Haywood The Santa Fe New Mexican.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told a Santa Fe audience Friday that discrimination against women is more subtle than it used to be and can be more difficult to combat than the overt discrimination she encountered when she began her legal career more than 50 years ago.

"Rooting out unconscious bias is much harder," she said, than simply changing laws that, for example, would prevent women from holding positions such as police officer or firefighter.

Ginsburg said many young women she speaks to about women's equality these days would say they haven't experienced gender discrimination.

"I think, sadly, 'wait until the baby comes,' and they are going to understand that it's not yet equal," said Ginsburg, who litigated gender-based discrimination cases in the courts throughout the 1970s and helped launch the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union before her 1993 appointment to the nation's highest court.

On Friday, she sat down with Albuquerque-based lawyer Roberta Cooper Ramo to discuss women's issues in front of about of 350 people, most of them women, at the newly opened Drury Plaza Hotel in downtown Santa Fe.

The discussion -- during which the justice touched on topics ranging from opera to her two bouts with cancer to the political climate that existed when the U.S. Constitution was written -- was the kickoff event for a symposium titled Risk and Reinvention:

How Women are Changing the World. The event is being hosted this weekend by the Women's International Study Center headquartered on Acequia Madre Street.

Now 81, Ginsburg appeared a bit frail when she entered the ballroom Friday, but she held the audience rapt with her observations -- by turns insightful and witty -- about the progress of the women's rights movement.

When asked what first drew her to become active in the movement, Ginsburg said she felt lucky to have been born at a time when the preceding generation had already begun the discussion and to be working in law during the height of the civil rights movement, when American society was in the midst of huge changes.

"The courts are not the vanguard of social change," she said. "They tend to trail society. But in the 1970s, the courts were catching up with societal change."

Ginsburg said she's often asked if she always wanted to be a Supreme Court justice. Her answer: "I wanted a job, any job." To have imagined that she would be on the Supreme Court, she said, "was in the realm of the fantastic."

Ginsburg said when her eldest child started grammar school, there were no other working mothers with children at the school her daughter attended. Ten years, later she said, "things had changed."

In answer to a question about how -- in an increasingly uncivil political climate -- the Supreme Court justices manage to get anything done in spite of political differences, Ginsburg talked about her friendship with the other justices and the importance of seeing others as human beings.

At the beginning of each meeting, she said, "each justice shakes hands with every other justice and looks each other in the eye."

During the course of the discussion, Ginsburg whipped out a pocket-sized edition of the U.S. Constitution she said she carries with her where she goes and talked about her "favorite" amendment, the 14th, which grants all people equal protection under the law.

Ramo asked Ginsburg what today's women can do to continue the fight for women's equality. "How would you send each one of us into battle?" Ramo asked.

"One obligation of all citizens is sadly neglected by some of us," Ginsburg answered, "and that is the obligation to vote. The first thing you must do is express your opinion in the ballot box."

Secondly, Ginsburg advised, each person "must have a passion about something that is important to other people ... something you care about deeply that will benefit other people."

The audience Friday included about 50 young women who received scholarships from the Women's International Study Center to attend the event.

One of those, Brittany Delany, a 27-year-old arts administrator who recently moved to Santa Fe from Massachusetts, said she feels personally empowered by setting her own hours and compensation and by having personal connections to women of other generations.

She couldn't recall having experienced an instance of gender discrimination.

Albuquerque-based paralegal Stephanie Porter, 28, said her mother raised her to be "anti-feminist," someone who would use the word feminazi, but her perspective changed when she became a mother.

Porter said she supports her family, with her husband serving as a stay-at-home dad. She's happy he was willing to embrace the role reversal, she said.

But while he receives accolades for doing what a woman would do as a matter of course, she sometimes feels her position as a mother has been diminished, and she feels she is perceived as neglectful.

Were she to have stayed at home, she said, she would have been viewed as lazy or unambitious.

"As a woman," Porter said, "you're damned if you do and damned if you don't."

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