Sisters 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 each other. Hirshman was interviewed about her book and these two trailblazing women.
Elise Cooper: Why the title?
Linda Hirshman: It is a play on words. About half the people got it. Sisters in the LAW.
EC: Why did you decide to write the book?
LH: 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.
EC: Which Justice could you identify most with?
LH: 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.
EC: Did the military help women achieve equality?
LH: 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.
EC: Didn’t this case also pave the way for the relationship between the two?
LH: 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.’
EC: Did Sandra O’Connor do something more than likely no other justice ever did?
LH: 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.
EC: What was O’Connor’s philosophy of the law?
LH: 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.
EC: What about Ginsburg?
LH: 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.