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Ruth Bader Ginsburg remembered locally, at Harvard

Law students Annie Whitney, left, and Catherine Walker-Jacks admired a memorial to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg outside the Harvard Law School library at Langdell Hall in Cambridge on Saturday.
Law students Annie Whitney, left, and Catherine Walker-Jacks admired a memorial to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg outside the Harvard Law School library at Langdell Hall in Cambridge on Saturday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — The time Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent at Harvard Law School during the 1950s presented challenges in and out of the classroom.

The young, married mother was among nine women in a class of about 500, and during her second year, her husband, Martin “Marty” Ginsburg, was diagnosed with cancer. He graduated a year before his wife and the family moved to New York City. Harvard then denied Ginsburg a degree because she completed her legal education elsewhere.

On Saturday, mourners gathered at the site where the young Ginsburg endured those pivotal trials and grieved the jurist, who persevered her way to the US Supreme Court, opening doors of opportunity for women and others at stops along the way.

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“She’s the reason we’re here,” said Carolina Rabinowicz, 24, a first-year Harvard Law School student from New York, who visited a makeshift memorial outside Langdell Hall, a tear staining her blue face mask.

Messages marked the memorial honoring Ginsburg outside the Harvard Law School library.
Messages marked the memorial honoring Ginsburg outside the Harvard Law School library.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Catherine Walker-Jacks, 25, another first-year student, said her class was reading a 2011 dissent authored by Ginsburg only hours before her death was announced Friday.

Walker-Jacks reflected on Ginsburg’s barrier-breaking career and the long hours she worked after dark to balance the needs of her family and profession.

“Law school is very stressful, but when I think of everything RBG dealt with, it really puts it in perspective,” said Walker-Jacks, who grew up in Concord.

In Berkeley, Calif., Carol Brosnahan, 85, one of Ginsburg’s law school classmates, recalled the evening in 1956 when the female students dined at the home of the former dean, who asked the group why they were at Harvard Law School, occupying slots that could have gone to men.

“The attitudes of some of the professors were so unbelievably demeaning of women,” Brosnahan said Saturday in a telephone interview. “There were professors who were simply hostile to the idea that a woman would be in the school.”

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"You are the reason I wanted to go to law school" was among the messages on the memorial to Ginsburg at Harvard Law School.
"You are the reason I wanted to go to law school" was among the messages on the memorial to Ginsburg at Harvard Law School.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

When Brosnahan marked her 40th anniversary last year as a judge in Alameda County, Calif., she said Ginsburg mailed a congratulatory note. Earlier this year, she said Ginsburg marked her retirement by recording a video message, which was played at a celebration for Brosnahan in March.

“She changed so much and she stood for so much. Even in her dissents when the court changed, she was a voice not only for women but for civil rights,” said Brosnahan. “She was an example to everybody with her indomitable spirit.”

Brosnahan said she and her husband, Jim, also a Harvard Law School graduate, learned of Ginsburg’s death when they turned on the television Friday.

“My husband and I both were so sick we turned it off,” she said. “It was just too hard. It’s still very hard to think that such a giant is gone, frankly.”

Flora Schnall, who was also in Ginsburg’s class at Harvard Law School, said she will be sorely missed.

“She was an inspiration to me,” Schnall said Saturday. “When I graduated, I couldn’t find a job, but I didn’t feel so bad because I knew she couldn’t find a job either.”

And it remains too difficult, Schnall said, for women to reach the upper echelons of power.

“It’s still a long slog to get going,” she said. “If you’re married and you’re working, you’re still doing 90 percent of the work at home.”

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John Winston, 85, said he was on Harvard Law Review with Ginsburg and he and his roommate babysat for her daughter, Jane, so she could spend time with her husband during his cancer fight.

At one point, Winston said word circulated that Ginsburg was in danger of losing her slot working on the journal and he confronted the group’s leader.

“I said, ‘Do you know what she’s doing?’ ” Winston said Saturday from his home in New York City. “She was up all night and getting Marty’s notes and then going to the hospital all day.”

Ginsburg was nominated for the nation’s highest court two years after law professor Anita Hill testified during Supreme Court confirmation hearings that her former supervisor, current Justice Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her. Thomas has denied the allegations.

Now a professor at Brandeis University, Hill said Ginsburg was “a role model” and a “fearless champion of equality.” She praised Ginsburg’s role in a case that upheld protections against housing discrimination and the dissent she wrote in a 2007 gender pay discrimination case. In that case, Ginsburg called on Congress to correct the majority’s ruling against, Lilly Ledbetter, a tire company employee who sued for equal pay. Two years later, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act became the first bill signed into law by Barack Obama.

“Whether arguing before the Supreme Court and or admonishing her colleagues on the Court, she spoke truth to power,” Hill wrote Friday in an e-mail. “In doing so, she brought American law closer to our lived experiences and to the equal justice promised in our Constitution.”

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Harvard Law School said Saturday it is planning an event to honor Ginsburg, though details weren’t available. The law school is conducting classes remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Harvard presented an honorary law degree to Ginsburg in 2011. Opera singer Plácido Domingo, who also received an honorary degree that year, serenaded her at the ceremony.

Plácido Domingo serenaded Ruth Bader Ginsburg during a ceremony at Harvard in May 2011.
Plácido Domingo serenaded Ruth Bader Ginsburg during a ceremony at Harvard in May 2011.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Ginsburg, an opera lover, displayed a photo of the moment in her Supreme Court chambers.

Her title for the photograph?

“Woman in ecstasy. That is me,” she told a television interviewer in 2016.

Among those who visited Harvard Law School on Saturday to honor Ginsburg was Thea Bissell, 32, of Somerville.

“She was such an icon and role model, an embodiment of grace and ferocity and not being willing to back down but also being willing to have dialogue,” said Bissell, who was accompanied by her husband and their 1-year-old son. “To see all of that embodied in one woman who fought so hard until literally her dying day is just incredible.”

Annie Whitney, 24, a first-year Harvard law student from North Carolina, said Ginsburg’s contributions are deeply felt.

“RBG’s legacy," she said, "is one that so many carry forward.”

Thea Bissell of Somerville, along with her son, visited the memorial to Ginsburg outside Harvard Law School's library.
Thea Bissell of Somerville, along with her son, visited the memorial to Ginsburg outside Harvard Law School's library.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Globe correspondents Jeremy C. Fox and Caroline Enos contributed to this report.


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. Lucas Phillips can be reached at lucas.phillips@globe.com.