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Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s #MeToo Moment

The Supreme Court Justice notes the importance of breaking the silence

(Editor’s Note: This story was previously published by PBS NewsHour.) 

Yes, her too.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman ever appointed to the high court, says she once faced a college professor’s implicit come-on when he gave her an exam before the other students. She told the story to an audience at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, where a documentary about her life called RBG had its world premiere.

“Every woman of my vintage knows what sexual harassment is, though we didn’t have a name for it,” said Ginsburg, adding that the attitude women faced was “get past it,” and “boys will be boys.”

Moderator Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legal affairs correspondent and close friend to Ginsburg, opened their conversation by asking the justice if she had ever been subject to inappropriate behavior.

Sharing one out of “many examples,” Ginsburg said that as a student at Cornell University, her chemistry instructor offered her a “practice exam” before an impending test. Feeling less than confident in her own aptitude in the subject, she agreed, and took the test he offered.

But when it was time to take the real class exam, she found it was identical to the practice test. “And I knew exactly what he wanted in return,” she said.

“What did you do?” asked Totenberg.

“I went to his office and said, ‘How dare you. How dare you do this.’”

“I assume you did quite well on that exam,” said Totenberg.

“I deliberately made two mistakes,” Ginsburg replied, laughing.

In her introduction, Totenberg noted that when Ginsburg began her career, women were “by law” treated differently from men. Ginsburg, a pioneering legal figure in the fight for gender equality, also discussed her experience facing blatant pay inequality at Rutgers University and how she and other women then banded together to sue their employer.

What should women be doing now?, asked Totenberg of Ginsburg’s reactions to the #MeToo movement.

“For so long, women were silent, thinking there was nothing you could do about it,” she said. “But now the law is on the side of women or men who encounter harassment, and that’s a good thing.”

By Molly Finnegan
Molly Finnegan is online news editor at PBS NewsHour and a former reporter/producer for Arts & Culture at PBS NewsHour.

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