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Excerpt­ed from Sis­ters in Law: How San­dra Day O’Con­nor and Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Lin­da Hirshman.


By the time the nation cel­e­brates the birth of its democ­ra­cy each Fourth of July, the nine jus­tices of the Supreme Court have most­ly left town. But before depart­ing the cap­i­tal for their sum­mer recess, they must first decide all the cas­es they have heard since their cur­rent term began the pre­vi­ous Octo­ber. The hard­est, most con­tro­ver­sial cas­es, where the unelect­ed Court orders the soci­ety to change in a big way, are often left to the end. As the days for deci­sion tick away in late June, the ten­sion in the court­room is as hot and heavy as the Wash­ing­ton sum­mer air.

On the morn­ing of June 26, 1996, Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg, the sec­ond woman appoint­ed to the high court since its found­ing, slipped through the red vel­vet cur­tain behind the bench and took her seat at the end. Five places along the majes­tic curve sat Jus­tice San­dra Day O’Connor, since 1981 the first woman on the Supreme Court, or the FWOTSC as she sly­ly called her­self. Each woman jus­tice sport­ed an orna­men­tal white col­lar on her somber black robe, but oth­er­wise there was no obvi­ous link between the First and Sec­ond, any more than between any of the oth­er jus­tices. On that day, how­ev­er, the pub­lic got a rare glimpse at the ties that bound the two most pow­er­ful women in the land.

Speak­ing from the depths of the high-backed chair that tow­ered over her tiny frame, Jus­tice Gins­burg deliv­ered the deci­sion of the Court in Unit­ed States v. Vir­ginia. From that morn­ing in June 1996, Virginia’s state-run Vir­ginia Mil­i­tary Insti­tute, which had trained young men since before the Civ­il War, would have to take females into its ranks. The Con­sti­tu­tion of the Unit­ed States, which required the equal pro­tec­tion of the laws for all per­sons, includ­ing women, demand­ed it.

Women in the bar­racks at VMI. Women rolling in the mud dur­ing the tra­di­tion­al haz­ing, women with cropped heads and stiff gray uni­forms look­ing uncan­ni­ly like the Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers VMI had sent to the Civ­il War a cen­tu­ry before. Six of Ginsburg’s brethren” on the Court agreed with her that VMI had to admit women, but the case was much more con­tentious — and momen­tous — than that robust major­i­ty of sev­en reflects. Until that day, VMI had been the shin­ing sym­bol of a world divid­ed between men’s and women’s prop­er roles. Before the case got to the Supremes, the low­er fed­er­al courts had sup­port­ed VMI’s sex-seg­re­gat­ed ways. For years, oppo­nents of fem­i­nism used the prospect of women in mil­i­tary set­tings as the prime exam­ple of how ridicu­lous the world would become if women were tru­ly treat­ed as equal to men. VMI was one of the last redoubts. And now Jus­tice Gins­burg, who, years ago as Lawyer Gins­burg, had been the pre­mier advo­cate for women’s equal­i­ty — the Thur­good Mar­shall of the women’s move­ment” — was going to order the nation to live in that brave new sex-equal world.

Few peo­ple lis­ten­ing knew that Gins­burg got to speak for the Court that morn­ing, because her sis­ter in law, O’Connor, had decid­ed she should. After the jus­tices vot­ed to admit women to VMI at their reg­u­lar con­fer­ence, the most senior mem­ber of the major­i­ty had the right to assign the opin­ion to any jus­tice who agreed. He assigned it to the senior woman, San­dra Day O’Connor, but she would not take it. She knew who had labored as a Supreme Court lawyer at the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union from 1970 to 1980 to get the Court to call women equal. And now the job was done. This should be Ruth’s,” she said.

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Copy­right © 2015 by Lin­da Hir­sh­man. Reprint­ed with per­mis­sion from Harp­er, an imprint of Harper­Collins Publishers.

Relat­ed Content:

Lin­da Hir­sh­man is a lawyer and cul­tur­al his­to­ri­an and the author of Vic­to­ry: The Tri­umphant Gay Rev­o­lu­tion and many oth­er books. She received her JD from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Law School and her PhD in phi­los­o­phy from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go, and has taught phi­los­o­phy and wom­en’s stud­ies at Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty. Her writ­ing has appeared in the New York Times, Wash­ing­ton Post,Slate, Newsweek, The Dai­ly Beast, and POLITI­CO. She lives in Ari­zona and New York City.