When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’56-’58 was a student at HLS in the 1950s, she was one of nine women in a class of more than 500, and women weren’t allowed to live in the dorms. Still, “I found the professors endlessly stimulating and the discussion with my colleagues equally so,” she recalled as the featured speaker at “Gender and the Law: Unintended Consequences, Unsettled Questions,” a conference at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study co-sponsored by HLS.

Ginsburg famously never received an HLS degree, refused that option after transferring to Columbia her third year in order to be with her husband, Martin Ginsburg ’58. But, she added, to laughter from the audience, in recent years HLS has repeatedly offered to bestow that honor upon her.

An overflow crowd of all ages, primarily women—from lawyers and judges to students to homemakers and professionals—gathered for the two-day conference. In the opening panel, Ginsburg—the second woman to serve on the nation’s high court—was joined by Linda Greenhouse, former legal reporter for the New York Times, Judge Nancy Gertner of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, and Chief Judge Sandra Lynch of the First Circuit Court of Appeals, who all recalled early fights for gender equality and the challenges remaining today.

Later panels included legal experts from the U.S. and abroad on topics ranging from the rights of domestic workers in Egypt to the growth of same-sex public schools in the U.S. HLS Professor Martha Minow moderated a discussion on gender and education. HLS Professor Jeannie Suk ’02 moderated a panel discussion, “Gendered Bodies, Legal Subjects,” which included Hauwa Ibrahim, a Nigerian attorney who defends clients charged under Sharia law (See profile). HLS Professor Janet Halley led a panel that addressed a wide range of issues related to economic rights. [See Halley interview].

Among many experiences in her storied career, Ginsburg was chief litigator for the ACLU’s women’s rights project, where she argued a number of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. At that time, “The Supreme Court never saw a gender classification it didn’t like,” she said, refusing, for example, to strike down a Michigan law preventing women from working as bartenders unless their fathers or husbands owned the bar. The law has moved significantly since then, Ginsburg noted, and others on the panel credited her for much of that progress.

“We are all of us in Justice Ginsburg’s debt for her career and for being with us today, which most of us didn’t expect,” said Greenhouse. Many people were also surprised that Ginsburg, hospitalized in early February for pancreatic cancer, was present several weeks later at President Obama’s State of the Union address. Greenhouse said that Ginsburg, asked why she rallied to attend the address, replied, “I was there because I wanted the country to see there is a woman on the Supreme Court.”

In the 1970s, as the fight for women’s rights gathered momentum, reformers needed to find a legal strategy to challenge such injustices as public school teachers being ousted from their jobs when their pregnancies became apparent. “The obvious choice was the Equal Protection clause,” Ginsburg said. But, when the 14th Amendment was passed in 1868, women “weren’t part of the political community at all” and strict constructionists argued those protections should not apply to them. “It was clear the framers had no idea they were changing any of that, but they planted an idea – the idea of equality,” Ginsburg said. Over time, interpretation evolved. “Our notion of the Equal Protection clause is that it evolves over time to fit society as it exists.”

Lynch noted that Ginsburg was very savvy in taking cases in which men were the plaintiffs or the facts offended most Americans’ sense of fairness. Ginsburg recalled the case of a father denied the social security benefits of his wife who’d died in childbirth, leaving him as the baby’s sole caretaker. “That was an ideal case because everyone was discriminated against: the woman as the wage earner, the male as caring parent,” and the child, recalled Ginsburg. Chief Justice William Rehnquist was persuaded, she said, because “it was utterly irrational that the baby not get care if the parent who died was female.” Within a decade, she said, Congress began removing most of the gender divisions in the law. She smiled, and added, “It’s amazing how the laws of that genre are all gone.”

In summing up, Ginsburg said, to loud and long applause, “First, I’m so glad to be here.” Reflecting on the immense changes during her lifetime, she added, “It was taken for granted that if you were a woman with a good education, you’d become a school teacher because you could get that job. Those doors that were shut tight against us are now open … I remain optimistic about the potential of the United States.” With those words, Ginsburg stood to leave, and received a standing ovation for more than two minutes.

For more coverage on the conference, see the Harvard Gazette.