In Amherst, Justice Ginsburg Says This Time In History 'An Aberration'

Oct 4, 2019

A month after going through cancer treatment, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared in fine form at Amherst College on Thursday. In front of about 1,600 people, she analyzed high-profile legal decisions and cracked jokes about gender discrimination.

After Ginsburg arrived on stage, the Amherst College choir serenaded Ginsburg with a chorus from her favorite opera, "The Marriage of Figaro." In fact, the oldest member of the country’s highest court – and its second woman ever – opened the talk with her love of music.

"Sometimes I’m just consumed by my work and thinking about these legal puzzles all the time," she said. "But when I go to the opera, all the briefs and opinions are put on a high shelf and I just enjoy the glorious music."

In a conversation with college president Biddy Martin, Ginsburg kept the audience rapt with tales of standing up to men over the course of her career – and helping to lessen gender discrimination through her work as a lawyer and a judge. She remembers a time when employers could legally recruit for “men only.”

"The changes I've seen in my long life make me optimistic for the future, and especially optimistic about the people in this room and what you will do to repair tears, divisions in our society," Ginsburg said.

She talked about her legendary love story with her late husband Marty, underscoring his support for her career and his role as the main cook in the family. When he died in 2010, her daughter started to worry about Ginsburg’s nutrition.

"Once a month, she cooks for me," Ginsburg said. "She fills the freezer with individual meals that will last me until she comes back next."

At 86, Ginsburg delights in her iconic status as a quasi-superhero for intellectuals – and by the moniker Notorious RBG, that a college student once coined.

"People ask me, 'Weren't you surprised that the name this student chose for you, Notorious RBG., was [after] the name of a famous rapper, The Notorious B.I.G.?' I said I wasn't at all surprised," Ginsburg said, to laughter.

Ginsburg noted that both she and the rapper were "born and bred" in Brooklyn.

Ginsburg didn’t take questions from reporters, but did from students and staff. Several pushed her for words of hope, given the recent rise of extreme right-wing views and conservative Supreme Court rulings on gerrymandering and corporate political donations.

In his turn, Joe Flueckiger, the director of dining services at Amherst, said Ginsburg has lived through some challenging times.

"This period right now is no exception," he said. "How do you think people will characterize this period in American history?" 

"As an aberration," Ginsburg replied to applause.

Outside the event, many people said they were grateful to be in Ginsburg’s presence. Theater and dance major Julian Schuffler identifies as non-binary, and was in the "waiting list" line. 

"I feel like I owe my opportunities as a not-man to RBG," Schuffler said. "She's such an important cultural icon for a generation that I feel like I have to at least try to see her and, like, bear witness to her life and her work."

Zack Horwitz is an economics major who – before hearing Ginsburg speak – had no plans to go into law.

"I definitely want to become a lawyer more now than I did three hours ago," he said. "She’s so inspirational."

In the past year, Ginsburg has been treated for both pancreatic and lung cancer. But that did not come up at the Amherst College event. And she appeared ready to sit for oral arguments when the Supreme Court begins its new term on Monday.