U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has fought the good fight for women and underrepresented groups for the better part of her 86 years—long before her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993, and her recent rocketship to pop culture icon.
After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1959, she struggled to find employment because of her gender. She eventually landed at Rutgers University as a law professor, and was told that she would be paid less than her male colleagues because she had a husband with a well-paying job. At the time, she was one of less than 20 female law professors in the U.S.
She co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), eventually becoming the Project’s general counsel, and went on to litigate several gender-related discrimination cases in front of the Supreme Court—winning the majority of them and spearheading the fight for women’s justice one argument at a time.
Don’t be fooled by her stature, she’s a woman’s warrior and a force to be reckoned with. So much so that both the documentary RBG and the biopic about her, On The Basis Of Sex, came out in the last year alone—as did her latest book My Own Words. She also has her own action figure.
Ginsburg garnered the nickname “The Notorious RBG.” after fellow Brooklynite and rapper Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls. The moniker stuck after an NYU law student started the blog “The Notorious RBG” in 2013 in response to Ginsburg’s dissenting opinions. Although she’s a steadfast lover of opera, she’s said to have looked into Biggie’s background and music, according to the New York Times.
After battling cancer twice, she most recently fractured three ribs and had two cancerous nodules removed from her lung, only to return to the bench a few weeks later while the entire internet volunteered their own vital organs to ensure the associate justice’s recovery.
But when it comes to Justice Ginsburg, it turns out that everyone has a different story to tell. In connection with her latest book and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music’s upcoming concert When There are Nine, inspired by the life of Justice Ginsburg, Bookshop Santa Cruz, the UC Santa Cruz Humanities Institute and Cabrillo Festival will present “My Own Words: The Law and Legacy of RBG,” a discussion about Ginsburg, her achievements and how gender influences legal discourse today.
Moderated by UCSC Distinguished Professor and feminist activist Bettina Aptheker, the panel will include Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge Syda Cogliati and attorneys Anna Penrose-Levig and Jessica Delgado. The panelists come from different legal backgrounds, and each works in a different field of specialization, but they are all united by a deep respect and appreciation for Justice Ginsburg. Ahead of the event, panelists spoke to GT about women in law, RBG and other role models who influenced them. (Due to extenuating circumstances, Jessica Delgado was unable to participate in this article.)
Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge
Syda Cogliati is Santa Cruz County’s newest superior court judge. She deals with misdemeanor cases, and previously worked as senior appellate research attorney at the Sixth District Court of Appeals. After graduating from UCSC as a politics and environmental studies double major, she says she was most interested in environmental law when she decided to pursue law at UC Hastings.
In your time from law school to now, were you particularly influenced by Justice Ginburg’s work?
To be honest, as a young law student and lawyer I wasn’t that keyed in to who she was. I have been lucky in my life to have other similar, female groundbreaking role models. My Justice Ginsburg is actually Justice Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian; she’s at the Sixth District Court of Appeals. I worked for her for over 12 years, and she was a woman who was a first in so many ways. Her grace, intelligence, diligence, and respect for the law really inspired me. I recognize those qualities in Justice Ginsburg.
I also love that Justice Ginsburg has become this cultural phenomenon. In law we can start to feel like we are in our own little world, like law dorks or something, but Justice Ginsburg has broken through to modern culture, and I love that she has made law and the Supreme Court so much more accessible to people, especially young women. People know her, even if they have nothing to do with law whatsoever.
What were some of the differences between UC Santa Cruz and UC Hastings Law School?
In the early 1990s, UC Santa Cruz was a pretty progressive place, and Hastings wasn’t quite that kind of institution yet, I think it’s come quite a long way, but one of the things that will always stand out for me is in my first-year class, I had a young female professor who was a woman of color. She was brand-new, and was teaching property. She was teaching this concept, remainderman, and she used the term “remainderperson.” There were some conservative students in the class, and one of the students in the class had the gall to raise his hand and say “the book says remainderman.”
I will never forget that—it was just a moment where the professor realized that not everyone was with her on being more progressive on including women in the law, and including women in basic legal terminology in the law. I love that she had the guts to change that term, and I appreciated that she did so. That’s one of the things that stood out for me, for why I want to make sure that the law includes women in every way.
Historically speaking, the majority of laws were made by, and interpreted by, white men. How do you think having more underrepresented voices in jurisprudence and in the legal field has affected law and how we think about law today?
Everyone brings their own perspective when they think about the law or how laws are applied. It’s best for our whole society to have different voices from different backgrounds interpreting the law and looking at historical developments of the law and how they apply today. Whether that’s women or other underrepresented groups, that’s important.
It makes a difference, my being a woman in the courtroom. It makes a difference to have people equally represented. I happen to have a courtroom right now where all four calendar attorneys are men. It’s a nice balance to have a woman in the judge role. It’s a comfort when a woman walks in and sees another woman involved in the process for her, whether she’s a litigant, defendant or attorney.
Do you think gender bias is something that women in law experience frequently?
I think that there are some subtle things. Right now for example, for this event, I’m researching women arguing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, because one of the things that RBG did was she won these very important cases there. When I was going back to dig into them, I realized that for the most significant one, even though she wrote the briefs and significantly participated, she didn’t actually give the argument, which was in front of nine men.
I started thinking about how that still persists to some extent. In a big case, if there is a man making a decision, the male partners may argue it themselves because they think they may connect more with that judge. The percentage of women today who argue in the Supreme Court is certainly not as high as the percentage of women lawyers that there are. It’s a place where improvement definitely needs to come. We still aren’t there yet, there’s a glass ceiling still there.
UCSC Professor, UC Presidential Co-Chair, Feminist Critical Race & Ethnic Studies, Feminist and Activist
Search “Bettina Aptheker” online and the official title bestowed by Google is “American Activist.” Rest assured, she holds many more titles than that. Aptheker is a professor, author, activist and feminist. She taught one of the country’s largest and most influential introductory feminist studies courses for nearly three decades at UCSC, and also holds the Jack and Peggy Baskin Foundation Presidential Chair for Feminist Studies.
What’s your relationship to Justice Ginsburg? When was it that you first heard about her?
I do not know Justice Ginsburg personally. However, we both grew up in Brooklyn. She is about 10 years older than I am, and we had very similar experiences in elementary school and our early lives. I was at UC Berkeley, so I wasn’t in law school, but in terms of the sexism we encountered, she describes that beautifully in her book. I was aware of her early on because I had been following her court cases about sex discrimination while I was teaching. I needed to know the cases when I started teaching as San Jose State, I think in ’76. She’s the chief architect of the legal struggle for women’s equality in the law. She did a brilliant job.
It’s interesting that you’ve known who she is for decades, especially since she’s only really garnered the recognition she deserved in the last 10 years or so.
That’s right, yes, it’s been really amazing. I think she captured the imagination of many young people because of the speaking that she does. She’s out and about—and has been for years—talking to college audiences, especially women. She’s a delightful person, you can see that. She’s a workaholic, and brilliant and delightfully funny. She’s captured the imagination of young women. They started to promote her as an iconic figure, and she certainly didn’t try to stop it.
Something that struck me when I was researching Justice Ginsburg is her relationship with the late Justice Scalia. Especially now, in a time of intense tribalism, do you think people have something to learn from their relationship?
I think people do have something to learn. They were two people who formed a friendship based on a love for opera, I believe. They formed a friendship that crossed the divide of their ideological and legal differences, which are very profound. It wasn’t just that Justice Scalia is conservative, he’s an originalist, meaning just trying to read the Constitution as it was originally written. She’s someone who says the Constitution is alive and breathing and growing. So they have this huge difference, but they helped each other also. They would call each other to send their opinions to each other when they wrote them. They strengthened each other, and that’s a marvelous example of humanity. Especially in this period now—where, in my view, Trump is so dug in, and it’s all about loyalty to him, and God help you if you cross him.
What do you hope people will take away from this event?
We are getting the sense that it’ll be standing-room only. I’m happy for whoever comes and am hoping we have a good turnout from the campus. I hope people get a sense of awareness for the Cabrillo Festival and her book, but also hope that people will learn a lot about how we can use the law to create change and how important the issue of liberation of women is for society. That has great currency now with the debate about reproductive freedom, for example, and in addition there are interrelated issues of race and democracy more broadly. We will be talking about those issues that she worked on, in particular the Voting Rights Act.
Historically speaking, the majority of laws have been created and interpreted by white men. Do you think jurisprudence and the law are more accessible to people of color and women than they have been in the past?
I think what we have done over the years is expand what the law stands for. A very good example of that is I was very intimately involved in the Angela Davis trial back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and we used the law. That’s the tool we had. We used it to guarantee as much of a fair trial as we possibly could. From my point of view, the law is an important avenue of struggle for social justice working in tandem with mass movements in the streets.
Associate Attorney, Penrose Chun & Gorman LLP
Anna Penrose-Levig never dreamed of being a lawyer. She says she fell into it by accident. Penrose-Levig pursued her degree at UC Hastings because of the opportunity that comes with a law degree. She currently works at her father’s firm and specializes in estate planning.
In what ways has gender factored into your career as a lawyer?
I grew up in the Central Valley and I was raised Catholic. That framed my worldview growing up, and questioning that system wasn’t encouraged, nor was it even presented as an option, really. So my world was framed from birth in terms of families being made up of a husband and a wife, and children. Husbands were the “head of the household” and women and girls were valued according to their attractiveness. The messages that I received were that attractiveness included being compliant, not making waves. One of my male teachers in high school hit on me, and commented negatively about my boyfriend and on how my clothes fit me in class in front of other students. Male students disregarded my personal space in really public and humiliating ways more than once. Those men felt empowered to do those things in that environment, and I implicitly understood that life would be easier if I never said anything to anyone about those experiences.
So I wouldn’t say that my childhood prepared me to confidently or directly address discrimination of any kind. I was pretty clueless about all forms of discrimination when I left home for higher education. I had no awareness of my own white, middle-class privilege. I didn’t understand the depth of that privilege or how much it affected my opportunity to pursue higher education. And as I approached law school, I still didn’t really have gender discrimination, or even traditional gender roles, specifically on my radar. I definitely didn’t see the subtle ways that gender discrimination can operate.
When I began to learn more about institutional bias and implicit bias, how that has come to evolve in our society, whether its gender bias or racial bias, bias and stigma related to mental health issues, or other kinds of bias, I began to look back at my childhood and understand how thoughtlessly I had made my way through the first part of my life with respect to the effects of bias on my own life, and on the lives of other people whose experiences are fundamentally different from my own.
The reason I bring this up is to lend some concreteness to my experience of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s work as being about more than gender bias. I really think that Justice Ginsburg’s work is about equality for everyone whose rights and experiences were excluded from the systems that the white, male, property-owning founders created with the imperfect goal of advancing and protecting only, or primarily, the interests of people like them.
When Justice Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court, issues of women’s rights and equal pay more specifically weren’t necessarily as well-known and contentious as they are today. With that in mind, do you think that people are more aware of gender biases today than they were 20 years ago?
I’d like to say yes, but I’m really not sure of whether people are more aware than they were 20 years ago. Maybe there’s more mainstream discussion of the issues, but I’m not sure that the discussion has penetrated practical reality for most people. I’m not sure that the discussion is reflected in our actions in a way that’s meaningful, that behaviors have actually changed. I’m disappointed that we still live in a world in which Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinions are required. She’s been writing dissenting opinions so much more frequently, and I feel like I’m being reminded more often lately that people still aren’t doing the right thing. It’s incredibly disappointing that a majority of our Supreme Court Justices are still so far removed from the everyday experiences of the people whom their decisions affect. It’s disappointing that Justice Ginsburg and other Supreme Court Justices still have to point out to the majority much of the time, and to our U.S. Senators and Representatives, that the law, or its application, is still biased in fundamental ways.
Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., a pay discrimination case, is a good example of what I’m talking about. For 20 years, Lilly Ledbetter did the same work as men at the company, and each year the gap grew between her pay and theirs. When the case reached the Supreme Court, a majority of five male Justices ruled against Lilly Ledbetter because she had waited too long to sue. Justice Ginsburg’s dissent invited Congress to change the law, which Congress did, so that now each new paycheck affected by a discriminatory action resets the time to file a lawsuit. But for this important change to have a beneficial effect, women have to feel empowered to advocate to be paid what they are worth, and to sue when it doesn’t happen. We aren’t generally taught that its acceptable to do that. Instead, society still tells women that when we assert our needs, we are being obnoxious, and when we get angry we’re being unreasonable.
When it comes to having a career and family, did you ever feel like you had to choose?
I never felt like I had to choose, but I don’t think I was well-informed. For about the last 10 years, just balancing work and finding time for family that doesn’t involve me being an ogre, that’s been all I’ve had the capacity to handle. I have two daughters, ages 9 and 10. Before them, I didn’t know anything about children, and I was terrified when I had my first. I knew this little person was going to be totally dependent on me to survive for a period of time. I’ve been fortunate to work for flexible employers who understand that this balance is hard, but it’s still true that doing both career and family well is more difficult than I ever could have conceived of.
Like Justice Ginsburg, I’m very lucky to have a very supportive partner who shares more than the traditional responsibility for child-rearing, and who does all of the cooking. We have a pretty non-traditional relationship that I’m very proud to have worked out together with him. He is a big part of why I can take the time now to learn more about Justice Ginsburg’s very important contribution to our body of law and our society and participate in relating that information to our community.
‘My Own words: The Law and the Legacy of RBG’ will take place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 22, at DNA’s Comedy Lab, 155 S River St., Santa Cruz. bookshopsantacruz.com/RBG. Free.