The Trip Abroad That Awakened RBG to Feminism
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This icon of equality learned a lot from the Swedes.
By Fiona Zublin
In 1961, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had already lived through a lot. She was part of one of the first Harvard Law School classes to admit women, had nursed her husband Martin through testicular cancer and had given birth to a daughter, Jane. She’d been rejected from a clerkship on the Supreme Court due to her gender after graduating tied for first in her class at Columbia Law School.
As her career progressed, she became a professor, an activist attorney, the second woman appointed to be a Supreme Court justice — and, in death as in life, an icon to the American left, a fighter to the end. But first she had to go to Sweden.
After completing a U.S. District Court clerkship, Ginsburg signed on for a role with Columbia’s Project on International Procedure, which explored the legal systems of foreign countries in order to increase American understanding of them. Ginsburg’s role would be to write a book about Sweden’s recently rejiggered code of procedure. The catch was that the 28-year-old Ginsburg would have to learn Swedish and move to Sweden, where she’d mostly be a single parent given that her husband, working to make partner, would only be able to intermittently join her.
This is RBG we’re talking about: Of course she went. The project hired a strapping Swedish ballet dancer to teach her the language, and by the spring of 1962 she was on her way to Sweden on her own — Jane would follow six weeks later after finishing first grade.
Over the next year, she and her colleague worked together on their book on civil procedure. But more importantly, Ruth Bader Ginsburg woke up to what feminism meant for women in Sweden — and what it could mean for women in the United States. “Between 20 and 25 percent of the law students in Sweden were women. And there were women on the bench,” she reminisced to the New York Times in 2015, “I went to one proceeding in Stockholm where the presiding judge was eight months pregnant.” That was when, Ginsburg explained, she started thinking seriously about gender equality. “It was that same summer I read The Second Sex,” she said, referring to Simone de Beauvoir’s influential work of feminist philosophy.
Sweden’s brand of feminism had spent a decade working to create a more balanced society, both for women in the workplace and for men in the home. A liberal attitude toward abortion had prompted an Arizona kids’ show host who had taken thalidomide, Sherri Chessen, to terminate a pregnancy in Sweden in a highly publicized 1962 case. And Swedish newspaper columnist Eva Moberg was the talk of the nation for her columns demanding why women, having gained some measure of workplace equality, were still forced to have “two jobs,” one in the office and one taking care of home and children. It was a debate that hadn’t yet reached the U.S., though Ginsburg and her husband had worked out a way to share chores equitably by then, she would later say.
Before the trip, according to a 1993 article in the Washington Post, Ginsburg “was nothing she would call feminist.” Afterward, everything changed. She returned to the states and got a job teaching at Rutgers University before founding the first U.S. law journal to focus on women’s rights in 1970. In 1972, she co-founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and threw herself into a series of landmark gender equality cases.
For the next decade, she spearheaded multiple gender equality cases, including Reed v. Reed, which successfully extended the equal rights clause of the 14th Amendment to apply to gender discrimination. She was known for her cleverness, choosing cases where she could prove discrimination against a man (such a s a 1972 case in which a caregiver was denied a tax deduction simply for being male) in order to create precedent that could knock down discrimination against women. Justice Antonin Scalia would later describe her as “the Thurgood Marshall of [women’s rights].”
In 1980, she was appointed to the federal bench, and in 1993 to the Supreme Court, where she sat for 27 years. Her status as an iconic feminist only grew: Her Millennial and Gen Z fans were legion, nicknaming her Notorious R.B.G. Her feminist activism continued on the court: She authored the majority opinion on a 1996 case striking down a military school’s policy against admitting women, and her dissent in Lilly Ledbetter’s case for equal pay led to the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which eased legal routes for workers making claims of pay discrimination. She was also a champion of abortion rights, even as pro-life activists across the country sought to shutter clinics and criminalize doctors.
The Swedish stuck with her too. Decades after her stint in Scandinavia, she still watched Ingmar Bergman films without the subtitles — and wore a small top hat, conferred on her along with an honorary doctorate by the University of Lund, to academic occasions.