Less than a year before her death Friday of cancer, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made one of her last visits to New England for a fireside chat at Amherst College.
Ginsburg sat down last October with Amherst College president Carolyn “Biddy” Martin before an audience of 1,600 students and other admirers who treated the jurist like a rock star.
Ginsburg, wrapped in a scarlet shawl, reflected then on her own undergraduate years at Cornell University.
“There were some things not right about Cornell in those days. One of them was the four-to-one ratio — there were four men to every woman,” said Ginsburg, who built her career fighting against unequal treatment on the basis of sex or race.
“Which made it a favorite place to send daughters, because if you couldn’t find a man at Cornell, you were hopeless," she joked, according to an online video of the discussion. "But it also meant that the women tended to be smarter than the men.”
“Back then too?” Martin retorted.
That was also the era of Cold War paranoia about communism. Ginsburg recalled a beloved zoology professor who was escorted out of the classroom, apparently because of his political views.
“My constitutional law professor wanted me to see that there was something very wrong with what was going on, that we were straying from our most basic values,” she recalled. “That is, we have the right to think, speak, and write as we believe, and not as Big Brother government tells us is the right way to think, speak, and write.”
She said seeing lawyers standing up for those accused of political subversion left an impression on her.
“I got the idea that being a lawyer was a pretty nifty thing to do,” she said. “I thought you could get a paying job but at the same time do something that would make things a little better in your local communities."
Ginsburg recalled coming to Harvard Law School in 1956, just a few years after the school began admitting women, and learning that there were no rooms in dormitories for women.
“Dormitories are reserved for men, and the women have to find a place in town,” she recalled.
She also spoke about topics far removed from the law and sexual discrimination, including her longtime fondness for opera and her admiration for the Russian émigré writer Vladimir Nabokov, who was her professor at Cornell, and who she credited with teaching her how to write.
“Nabokov was a marvelous teacher,” she said. “He was a man in love with sound of words.”
Ginsburg largely avoided discussing politics and the Congressional impeachment inquiry that was then ongoing, which later led to President Trump’s impeachment in the House and his acquittal in the Senate.
Instead, her conversation with Martin focused on more personal and lighthearted subjects, such as her nickname, “Notorious RBG,” a nod to the late rapper “Notorious BIG.” Ginsburg said the moniker, unusual for an esteemed jurist, didn’t take her aback.
“I wasn’t at all surprised. The two of us had something very important in common. That is, we were both born and bred in Brooklyn.”