Hirshman & Sisters in Law
Guest Columnist: Elise Cooper
In Law by Linda Hirshman traces the careers of
Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra
Day O’Connor. It delves into how these two justices
strongly influenced the women’s movement as they
strove to achieve equality. These first two women on
the Supreme Court could not have been more different:
O’Connor a Christian, Republican, politician,
and a western rancher’s daughter while Ginsburg
is Jewish, a Democrat, an ACLU attorney, and hailed
from Brooklyn. Yet, these women bonded and respected
was interviewed about her book and these two trailblazing
Elise Cooper: Linda, why the title?
Linda Hirshman: It is a play on words. About
half the people got it. Sisters in the LAW.
Why did you decide to write the book?
I have been following them for quite a number of
years. Two years after I got out of law school Ginsburg
won her first case where she wrote the brief that was
before the Supreme Court in Reed vs. Reed. In a sense
I lived in the world they made. I was amazed there was
no biography of Ginsburg. Then I felt you couldn’t
write anything about equality of women without talking
about the first woman on the Supreme Court. It naturally
turned out they have a very interesting relationship.
I did a lot of research and know a lot of the same people.
Ginsburg left her archives to the Library of Congress,
but O’ Connor is extremely secretive so there
is only ¼ of the material available.
Which Justice could you identify most with?
Linda: Ginsburg’s life follows mine since
we both went to Cornell, argued before the Supreme Court,
and are Jewish. But I can also identify with O’Connor
since I lived in Phoenix for thirty years, and am very
aware of her western cultural environment.
Did the military help women achieve equality?
The 1996 case of the United States vs. Virginia
was evidence of that. A female candidate who decided
her rejection was based on sex discrimination sued the
Virginia Military Institute. The Justice Department
concluded that VMI violated the Fourteenth Amendment,
guaranteeing equal protection to all persons. VMI defenders
said the methods they used to train and shape the male
students could not work if there were women present,
and argued women learned ‘in a different voice.’
In fact, West Point filed numerous briefs telling the
Court that coeducational schools can train people to
be soldiers. The final decision had seven justices voting
to compel the school to admit women. O’Connor
was assigned to write the opinion, but she deferred
it to Ginsburg. She wrote an anti stereotyping principle,
in which the policy of exclusion must fall. This laid
the way since their position was to allow women to do
it if capable.
Didn’t this case also pave the way for the relationship
between the two?
They already had a relationship, but because O’Connor
insisted that ‘this should be Ruth’s,’
in that she would write and deliver the majority opinion.
Ginsburg gave a shout out to O’Connor by including
in her summary a reference to an opinion O’Connor
wrote. I describe in the book, ‘And then Ginsburg,
the legendary undemonstrative justice, paused and, lifting
her eyes from the text, met the glance of her predecessor
across the bench.’
Did Sandra O’Connor do something more than likely
no other justice ever did?
Linda: Yes. She gave all her clerks the memos
whether assigned the responsibility or not, and she
hired people that did not necessarily have her opinions.
She brought everyone together to give their opinions,
and took advantage of the different viewpoints. This
was quite remarkable and a great idea. I don’t
know why other justices would not do this as well.
What was O’Connor’s philosophy of the law?
Linda: She thought that people’s social
behavior could change their beliefs over time. What
follows is that their expectation in the law change
and the Constitution should recognize that. For example,
regarding the Equal Rights Amendment she thought it
should be achieved on a case-by-case basis. Her “incrementalism”
was philosophical since she made a conscious decision
not to be broader than the immediate case in front of
her, waiting to see how society acted on it.
What about Ginsburg?
Linda: She asked the question: are women treated
differently from comparable men, not wanting to stereotype
women as different. This lifelong crusade was known
as ‘equality feminism’ or ‘simple
equality.’ I put in this quote where she dissented
from the feminist article of faith concerning Roe vs.
Wade. She reasserted her belief in a less encompassing
Roe, one that merely struck down the extreme Texas law
and stated, it ‘might have served to reduce rather
than to fuel controversy.’ She basically wanted
change to occur without meeting much resistance, with
each change clearly a cog in a wheel that she's going
to then roll towards equality
Hirshman at Harpercollins
Linda Hirshman @
Linda Hirshman @