Behind Every Bench

By Chad Galts / January / February 2000
October 24th, 2007
In mid-November, and despite recently undergoing colon-cancer surgery, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visited campus to lecture on what she called "my current workplace, and on the women who figured in its history." Ginsburg, who is only the second woman to serve on the Court (the first, Sandra Day O'Connor, lectured on campus in 1996), began by saying that until recently women didn't have much at all to do with her workplace.

The exception was the wives of the nine justices. When, in the early nineteenth century, Chief Justice John Marshall wanted to reinforce his idea that the Court speak with one voice, he ordered all the justices to live together while it was in session. The arrangement came to an end when one of the wives complained that "her digestive system did not agree with boardinghouse fare," Ginsburg said, thereby becoming the first woman to exert a significant influence on the deliberations of the Court. "Justice Marshall," Ginsburg added, "was not pleased."

The first woman to be gainfully employed within the walls of the Supreme Court was Lucille Loman, who was hired as a clerk in 1944 by Justice William O. Douglas. But Loman had to do double duty. The country was at war, Ginsburg explained, and Douglas decided he and the country would be better served by a clerk who could simultaneously serve as his personal assistant.

The next woman hired was Margaret Corcoran, daughter of Thomas Corcoran '22, a high-powered Washington lobbyist (who was himself profiled in the September/October 1998 BAM). Corcoran clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun in 1966, at which time, Ginsburg said, clerkships began to be awarded on a more gender-neutral basis. "After 1973," she said, "women no longer appeared as one- or two-at-a-time curiosities."

In an odd benchmark of feminist progress, one old Court-related role has lately been reversed. Beginning in 1877 a tradition called "At-Home Mondays" required the justices' wives to take turns organizing food, drinks, and dancing for 200 to 300 visitors to their homes. Although that practice is long dead, the justices still all get together for lunch three times a year. "The cooking responsibility rotates," Ginsburg said. "And there is much demand for the skills of my husband - super-chef Marty Ginsburg."

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January / February 2000