Ruth Bader Ginsburg—Supreme Court justice, foremost champion for women's rights and the only picture on Jezebel's vision board—sat down last night for an interview with MSNBC correspondent and former Jez staffer Irin Carmon. In short: RBG thinks your Notorious RBG tattoos are a little weird, but a "nice sentiment," and she fears for the state of abortion access.
Carmon was able to secure an interview with Ginsburg at the Supreme Court, a rarity in itself (Carmon is working on a forthcoming biography of Ginsburg's life). Their talk was filled with fascinating insights on Ginsburg's character and her views on what "unfinished business" remains for gender equality.
On women's rights in the 1970s versus today:
Our goal in the '70s was to end the closed door era. There were so many things that were off limits to women, policing, firefighting, mining, piloting planes. All those barriers are gone. And the stereotypical view of people of a world divided between home and child caring women and men as breadwinners, men representing the family outside the home, those stereotypes are gone. So we speak of parent— rather than mother and wage earner rather than male breadwinner.
That job was an important first step. What's— what's left, what's still with us and— and harder to deal with is what I call unconscious bias. And my best example is the symphony orchestra. When I was growing up, one never saw a woman in the symphony orchestra, except perhaps playing the harp. People who should have known better like The New York Times critic, Howard Tau— Taubman said, "You could put a blindfold on him and he could tell you whether it's a woman playing the piano or a man."
On abortion access, Ginsburg said it was "unlikely" that Roe v. Wade would be overturned, given that the Supreme Court is "highly precedent-bound." But she said that while "women of means" will always have the ability to get an abortion, the same is not true for poor women:
Carmon: How does it feel when you look across the country and you see states passing restrictions that make it inaccessible if not technically illegal?
Ginsburg: Inaccessible to poor women. It's not true that it's inaccessible to women of means. And that's— that's the crying shame. It— we will never see a day when women of means are not able to get a safe abortion in this country. There are states— take the worst case. Suppose Roe v. Wade is— is overruled. There will still be a number of states that will not go back to old ways.
Remember that before Roe v. Wade was decided, there were four states that allowed abortion in the first trimester if that's what the woman sought. New York, Hawaii, California, Alaska. Other states were shifting. And people were fighting over this issue in state legislatures. Sometimes the pro-choice people were winning. Sometimes the pro-life people were winning. But they were— there was lots of activity in the political arena. That stopped with Roe v. Wade, because it gave the opponents of access to abortion a single target.
Carmon: Well, now there's lots of legislative activity, right? And it's mostly in the direction of shutting down clinics, creating new barriers—
Ginsburg: Yes. Who does that hurt? It hurts women who lack the means to go someplace else. It's almost like— oh, you wouldn't remember, because you're too young. But when most states allowed divorce on one grounds, adultery, nothing else. But there were people who went off to Nevada and stayed there for six weeks. And they got a divorce. That was available to people who had the means, first to get themselves to Nevada, second to stay there for some weeks.
Finally, the country caught on and said, "This isn't the way it should be. If divorce is to be available for incompatibility, it should be that way for— for every state." But the situation with abortion right now, by— by all the restrictions, they operate against the woman who doesn't have freedom to move, to go where she is able to get safely what she wants.
She also praised some aspects of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which she pointed out, unlike Roe, acknowledged that abortion access was about a woman's right to bodily autonomy, not just a doctor's right to practice:
Roe v. Wade was as much about a doctor's right to practice his profession as he sees fit. And the image was the doctor and a little woman standing together. We never saw the woman alone. The Casey decision recognized that this is not as much about a doctor's right to practice his profession, but about a woman's right to control her life destiny.
And this, on whether she'd become "more radical" later in life:
Carmon: Gloria Steinem said that women are the one group that gets more radical with age. Is that true for you?
Justice Ginsburg: I had great good fortune in— in my life to be alive and have the skills of a lawyer when the women's movement was revived in the United States. And I think my attitude, my aspirations have not changed since the '70s. My hope for our society that we're going to use the talent of all of the people and not just half of them. I would contrast an earlier period in my life, when I just accepted discrimination as that's the way things are. Nothing I can do about it.
Carmon: And now? Now how do you react to the discrimination?
Ginsburg: I try to teach through my opinions, through my speeches— how wrong it is to judge people on the basis of what they look like, color of their skin, whether they're men or women.
In a "lightning round," Ginsburg had one-word responses to the Hobby Lobby and Citizens United rulings: "Wrong."
When she first learned that people were procuring RBG tattoos, the justice said, "I thought it was a joke. I thought it was something you pasted onto your arm. But I— I'm a little distressed that people are really doing that." But when Carmon informed her that one of the tattoos says, "Respect the bench," the justice laughed a little and said, "Well, that's a nice sentiment."
Ginsburg also cheerily reiterated her slight inebriation during the State of the Union, telling Carmon that she'd been both drinking and up all the night the evening before, because she couldn't stop writing: "My pen was hot."
Ginsburg has suffered two bouts of cancer since 1999 and a blocked coronary artery, but still manages to work out with a personal trainer. She said that while she's in no hurry to retire, she'll know when it's time.
"I'm concerned about doing the job full steam," she told Carmon. "And I've said many times, once I sense that I am slipping, I will step down. Because this is a very intense job. It is by far the best and the hardest job I've ever had. And it takes a lot of energy and staying power to do it right. So that is— is when I will— I will step down when I feel I can no longer do the job full steam."
Image via MSNBC