Nation & World

Harvard conference on gender and law looks at past, present, future

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Justice Ginsburg, other panelists, say today’s challenges are less clear, but no less important

It was a homecoming of sorts when Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, spoke at a conference on gender and the law today (March 12) at a conference at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Ginsburg began her legal studies at Harvard Law School in 1956; however, her husband was offered a job in New York and Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School, where she finished her degree.

But, said Ginsburg, to the delight of her audience, “lately, Elena Kagan has said, ‘whenever you want a degree you can have one.’”

Ginsburg and her fellow panelists discussed how the law in general has changed as society has changed. In the 1960s and ’70s, when Ginsburg was beginning her career as a lawyer, people were beginning to question the status quo in terms of gender discrimination and the law.

“People were awakening to a form of discrimination that [had been] considered, ‘just the way it is,’ and students wanted to know more about this subject [gender and law] and what could be done to change the way things were,” said Ginsburg.

“It was a headier time because it seemed so clear — the pace of change was so clear, what had to be done was so clear. But now it’s much more opaque, it’s less about … explicit discrimination, and now it’s more about subtle discrimination.”

“When we were starting out, the exclusions were explicit,” echoed panelist Judge Nancy Gertner of the U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts.

The panelists agreed that the law was one means by which to effect real change then and now. The law was one means to break down the barriers that stood in the way of equal opportunity.

Chief Judge Sandra L. Lynch of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit saw firsthand as a young student that the Supreme Court, in particular, through decisions like Brown v. Board of Education, could bring about moral change.

Now, the challenges that women in the legal profession face are different, if not less daunting, than they were in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, Gertner offered as one example, law firms are not family-friendly places. Women feel they must choose between career and family. It’s a problem, she suggested, that needs as remedy not so much legal change as cultural change.

“Law can help with that kind of change — to [allow] every child to have two parents — but there are distinct limits as to what law can do,” agreed Ginsburg. She added that law is auxiliary. To spark a change in the way people want to live takes more than the law — it requires a shift in the way people think about their world.

Moderator Linda Greenhouse ’68, a fellow at Yale Law School, brought an end the proceedings with a general question about the future of law, to which Ginsburg replied with an affirmation: “As hard as times are, I remain optimistic about the potential of the United States.”

Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study is sponsoring the two-day conference called “Gender and the Law: Unintended Consequences, Unsettled Questions.”