the office

What It Was Like to Work for Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Women’s Rights Project offices in 1977. Photo: ©Lynn Gilbert

As a boss, Ruth Bader Ginsburg wasn’t much for small talk; on daily calls, she would answer ACLU Women’s Rights Project co-founder Brenda Feigen’s “Hi Ruth, how are you?” with legal shoptalk. Ginsburg was obsessively focused on overturning decades of Supreme Court doctrine that enshrining gender discrimination, which she managed to accomplish in the WRP’s first few years. Life at the office itself, an improbably luxurious sublet at 22 East 40th Street, was itself unprecedented. A half-generation earlier, Ginsburg had been demoted for her first pregnancy and hid her second under baggy clothes, but at the WRP of the 1970s, the lawyers who answered to her brought their babies (and their breastfeeding) to work.

Aryeh Neier, former executive director of the ACLU: It was 1971. I was trying to create a Women’s Rights Project, and I wanted a litigator to head it. I asked around and was told that there was a woman who had brought a number of women’s rights cases on behalf of the New Jersey ACLU. Ruth was then a professor at Rutgers Law School. She was a very reserved person, but what she had to say was very persuasive. Her basic approach to the women’s-rights issue is she wanted to break down stereotypes that limited women to certain activities and men to others. And I liked that very much. But she lacked one thing: She had not been immersed in the women’s-rights movement that had emerged the previous two or three years. So I also hired Brenda Fasteau [now Feigen] because she had been immersed in the movement.

Brenda Feigen, co-director, 1972-1974: She called us both directors; she didn’t like the co-. She felt like it was diminishing to me. She wanted it to be equal. I was there at the founding of it, but she was really there before because she started the whole inspiration for this work.

Kathleen Peratis, director, 1974-1979: The Women’s Rights Project space was on one side of the elevator bank, and the rest of the ACLU was on the other side of it.

Jill Laurie Goodman, staff attorney: We were the first wave of women lawyers. Wave, as opposed to a single person here and there like Ruth and a few others.

Feigen: The calls were going crazy. Most of them were about, “How do I keep my maiden name when I marry?” And I would say, “Birth name.” There were actual discrimination cases, too, but they mostly came from the affiliates.

Susan Deller Ross, staff attorney: It was just such an exciting time. There were all these explicitly discriminatory laws on the books, and it was possible to start bringing cases against sex discrimination and win them. Remember the Supreme Court had never said it was unconstitutional, until Reed v. Reed [Ginsburg’s first case before the Supreme Court]. I have this memory of us sitting up late, maybe it was a dark November night, proofreading the brief before filing it. And Ruth saying, “You know, you’ve got to go a little faster.” I thought I was a good proofreader, but she was better.

Peratis: There’s that saying that on one’s deathbed, no one says, “I wish I’d spent more time in the office.” But that wouldn’t be true of Ruth.

Neier: I could always turn to Burt Joseph [a civil-rights lawyer and the head of the Playboy Foundation] for a relatively small grant. Do you know the story of Christie? Hefner and his wife had been divorced. When Christie was 18, she left her mother’s home and moved to her father’s home. And her father had no idea what to do with an 18-year-old. So he asked Burt and his wife to become substitute parents for Christie. They took charge of Christie and sent her to do an internship of the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU.

Peratis: We decided money was money and we’ll take it. I’m sure I never read the magazine, but I was glad to have their money.

Feigen: When Ruth had Jane and James [in 1955 and 1965], she just did it — whatever she had to do. I was pregnant in 1974. To the best of my knowledge, there were no other pregnant women and they hadn’t really figured it out. My pay was $18,000 a year. There was no way to be able to stay and have a family. I was also running around the country debating the horrible Phyllis Schlafly. They wished that I was doing less of that.

Ross: Kathleen hired me while I was visibly pregnant in July 1975. That was a big advantage of it being an all-woman environment. I don’t know if I knew she was pregnant then, but she had a baby two or three months after me. Michael was born in November, and RBG came and visited me at home with James and brought my son a book. I don’t think a male boss would have done that. I came back to work after seven weeks. There was an official paid-leave policy. I’d been very active in the EEOC that postpartum women were also entitled to sick leave.

Peratis: I went back to work two weeks after my son was born. I was very eager to get back to work. Aryeh gave us an office that we could use for our babies, and we both brought our babies into the office for close to a year.

Ross: We hired a college student to take care of the babies during the day. We had playpens and cribs and baby carriages. I was nursing still, so that was a great convenience.

Peratis: I had a lawsuit pending against a number of fancy New York restaurants who had refused to hire women as waiters or bus people. I think there might have been four or five of these white men and me in this meeting where I breastfed my baby. One of them, Morris Abrams, went to Aryeh and complained to Aryeh that I was unprofessional. Aryeh said, “She handles her practice however she practices it, and I’m not going to intervene.” We didn’t think of it as political at all. It was practical.

Ross: It was a grand experiment. And it was an effort to figure out how we do something for which there still remains no support anywhere in the culture.

Goodman: There’s a reason it didn’t take off. It didn’t work well. Imagine trying to get in an eight-hour day, meet with clients, meet deadlines on briefs, while you’re caring for the baby. I don’t think it was true for all of the time that there were babysitters. And I don’t think it was true for all the months that they did this and for all of the hours that they worked.

Ross: When I came on, I was told that lawyers were paid based on the number of years out of law school. All is well and good until a man who came on staff who was a couple of years behind me at NYU. Somehow at lunch one day we discovered he was making more than I was.

Goodman: We were sitting around the table talking about salaries, and Janet Benschoof and Jack Novick, who was a lawyer there, were both the same years out of law school, and Jack was making much more. Everybody sat there silent.

Ross: Marjorie Smith went to see Aryeh Neier, whose assertion was, “That was just my negotiation position.” We were told it was a policy! We quickly got not only back pay but a salary adjustment to an equal level with men starting then.

Neier: I don’t specifically recall that.

What It Was Like to Work for Ruth Bader Ginsburg