Ruth Bader Ginsburg, An Inspiration To Working Mothers NPR's Michel Martin talks with law professor Joan Williams of the University of California-Hastings College of Law about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as an icon for working mothers.


Ruth Bader Ginsburg, An Inspiration To Working Mothers

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, An Inspiration To Working Mothers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NPR's Michel Martin talks with law professor Joan Williams of the University of California-Hastings College of Law about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as an icon for working mothers.


Before she joined the bench, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a distinguished career in academic law. But that was in part because she could not get a job in the private sector. She says she was discriminated against because she was, A, a woman, B, a mother, and C, Jewish. We're going to talk about each of those identities over the next few minutes.

Ginsburg herself experienced how tough it could be for working mothers. She lost her job as a typist when she became pregnant with her daughter. Later, after her career took off, she dealt with a lot of issues that working women face, as she recalled in 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival.


RUTH BADER GINSBURG: So I would get called by the head of the school, the school psychologists or the room teacher to come down immediately to hear about my son's latest escapade. Well, one day, I think I'd been up all night writing a brief. I was at my office at Columbia Law School. I got the call. And I responded, this child has two parents. Please alternate calls.


GINSBURG: And it's his father's turn.


MARTIN: To talk about Ginsburg's legacy as a champion of the rights of working women, and particularly working mothers, we're joined by Joan Williams, a law professor and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings.

Joan Williams, professor Williams, thank you so much for talking with us.

JOAN WILLIAMS: Delighted to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

MARTIN: What role did Ruth Bader Ginsburg play in creating more equality - particularly, I want to ask, for mothers?

WILLIAMS: Well, the first thing she did is in the series of cases that she litigated in the 1970s, she challenged a whole series of ways that government programs and employers were treating men differently than women - fathers differently than mothers.

For example, at that point in time, Social Security disability benefits if your spouse died were only available for women. So she took on a famous cold case called Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld and got that extended to men. In another case called Struck v. Secretary of Defense, if you got pregnant in the Air Force, you were kicked out of the Air Force. But, of course, if your wife got pregnant, you were not kicked out.

And so through those early equal protection cases, she established the principle that you could not treat mothers differently than fathers in a wide variety of contexts. That was the first thing that she did.

MARTIN: I understand that she was strongly influenced by the former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and his views on gender roles. Is that so? Can you just tell us about that?

WILLIAMS: She was very strongly influenced because when she graduated first in her class at Columbia - from Columbia Law School, as you mentioned, she could not get a job in a single firm in New York City. And she ended up as a research associate and going over to write - to Sweden to help a professor write a book, actually on civil procedure.

Well, she was at Sweden at a very important time. Olof Palme was the prime minister, and Olof Palme was just a real visionary. And one of the things that he was very focused on is he said, you're never going to liberate women from their roles at home if you don't liberate men to assume responsibilities at home.

And so from the very beginning, this was the vision of gender equality that Justice Ginsburg came back again and again and again. Many of these cases that I've mentioned were actually litigated on behalf of men. For example, Wiesenfeld was a man who after his wife died wanted to stay home and take care of his child and be a full-time homemaker. And he was met with disbelief by members of the Supreme Court.

But she convinced the Supreme Court - at that point, you know, eight white guys and Justice Marshall - Justice Marshall deeply understood the structural inequality that she was talking about - the eight white guys kind of not so much. But she persuaded them that men and women were both in a cage from these breadwinner-homemaker roles.

And the vision of what I've called reconstructive feminism that she tried to pursue would liberate both men and women from those roles - to be able to have women to have full careers and men to have full participation in family life.

MARTIN: As briefly as you can, you've said that Ginsburg tackled issues about women's rights, often by helping men see things differently. And I'm told that she actually did this on the court with Justice Rehnquist.

WILLIAMS: That's a great connection. In many ways, her most important - the most important move she made for mothers in her later years was influencing Justice Rehnquist in a case called Hibbs v. Nevada. And in that case, which is the Family Medical Leave Act case, Justice Rehnquist said stereotypes about women's domestic roles are reinforced by parallel stereotypes presuming a lack of domestic responsibilities for men. That idea comes straight from the brief that Ginsburg wrote in the 1970s before she was on the Supreme Court.

But Rehnquist was very conservative. I mean, why was he going there and upholding a broad sweep of the Family Medical Leave Act? Arguably, it's because his wife had died early of cancer, so he had caregiving responsibilities for her. And his daughter got divorced, and he was known to leave the Supreme Court sometimes to pick up the grandkid from child care. And so, ironically, that is the case that I and others used as we pioneered legal rights for mothers in the 1990s - that Hibbs v. Nevada case.

MARTIN: It's remarkable - an influence both on a personal level and in such a larger - it's rare that someone has both a personal influence and an influence on a sort of a - really on a global scale.

Joan Williams is a law professor and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings. Professor Williams, thank you so much for joining us today.

WILLIAMS: I appreciate the opportunity to talk on this very sad day.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.