Friday, December 11, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Opinion in the VMI Case

This post marks the 200th famous speech by a woman in The Eloquent Woman's Index of Famous Speeches, so it seemed appropriate to honor that milestone with a milestone of a speech and a speaker.

In 1996, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman justice to sit at the Court, delivered the summary majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, sometimes called the VMI case. The landmark opinion opened up the Virginia Military Institute to qualified women, making it the last all-male public university in the United States.

Ginsburg, of course, knew a little something about the barriers of all-male institutions. She was one of nine women in a class of almost 600 students at Harvard Law, and was told by one of the deans there that she was taking the place of a man. Despite being a top student at Harvard and later Columbia Law School, in 1960 Ginsburg was rejected as a potential clerk for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who said he wasn't ready to work with a woman.

Ginsburg has played a key role in several of the Supreme Court's gender discrimination cases, on topics ranging from equal pay and employment opportunities, sexual harassment at school and in the workplace, and reproductive rights. The VMI case was one of her first majority opinions in the area of women's rights, coming just three years after she was appointed to the Court.

The Supremes don't allow video inside their courtroom, but you can read a transcript and listen to audio of Ginsburg reading the VMI summary majority opinion at the Oyez site. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Say yes when asked to speak! We now know more about the background to this famous speech, thanks to a new book by Linda Hirshman about Ginsburg and her colleague at the Court, Sandra Day O'Connor. In Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World, Hirshman writes that senior member O'Connor generously allowed Ginsburg to write and deliver the majority opinion in this case, in honor of Ginsburg's extensive record in fighting against gender discrimination. In the summary read from the bench, Ginsburg acknowledged this by including a quote from a 1982 O'Connor opinion on sex segregation, noting that states "may not close entrance gates based on fixed notions concerning the roles and abilities of males and females."
  • Speak slowly, and give your audience time to digest your words. Listen to how measured Ginsburg's voice is, and how much of a pause she allows between each idea. Her careful style is a deliberate choice, one that she has cultivated both in classrooms and courtrooms over the years, and in writing and speaking, according to a 2010 interview. Her advice to her law clerks? "Don't write sentences that people will have to re-read. Same is true for public speaking. My effort is to speak so slowly so that ideas could be grasped."
  • Use simple words to have a strong impact. Ginsburg has said that other justices on the Court sometimes get fancy with the rhetoric in their opinions, but it's not a tactic she prefers. "I think some of my colleagues' spicier lines are distracting," she told an NPR reporter earlier this year. "They draw attention away from what the justice is trying to say." You won't find elaborate prose in United States v. Virginia, but Ginsburg makes a few lines soar in their simplicity:
    "Neither federal nor state government acts compatibly with equal protection when a law or official policy denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature--equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities."
We've got our eye on another Ginsburg speech to include somewhere among the next 200 Famous Speech Fridays. Any suggestions for other speeches that should make it into the Eloquent Woman Index? Email them to eloquentwoman AT gmail DOT com or tweet to @dontgetcaught on Twitter.

The marvelous freelance writer Becky Ham, a frequent contributor, got us to the 200 mark on The Eloquent Woman Index with this fine post.

(Photo by Supreme Court of the United States)

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