Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s advice to women on how to use your voice to be taken seriously

Image: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaste
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Last night (Sept. 26), the towering American news anchor Charlie Rose sat folded into an armchair across from US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. More than once the interviewer threw out questions rapid-fire, and was met with measured silence from his tiny interlocutor.

The two spoke for an hour and a half at the 92Y in New York City, about Ginsburg’s cases, views, and late husband. Ginsburg, the second female judge named to the highest American court, is a feminist icon, and her conversation with Rose rarely strayed far from that fact. More than once the justice emphasized her intolerance for the idea that a woman might not be afforded a life any less than a man, in politics or the workplace, legally or socially.

Early in the evening, the conversation turned toward the 2016 US presidential election, for which the country had its first major female contender.

“Do you think sexism played a role in that campaign?” asked Rose. After pausing to repeat the question, Ginsburg answered in her low, gravely, Brooklyn-tinged voice, “I have no doubt that it did.” Rose asked if the justice thought this was the decisive difference, that if Hillary Clinton had been a man she would have won. “There were so many things that might have been decisive but that was a major, major factor,” said Ginsburg.

During the campaign Clinton’s demeanor and voice were criticized by voters and pundits as impersonal, grating, and monotone. That perhaps prompted the following question from one audience member:

We’ve talked a lot about your voice tonight…. We’ve talked a lot recently about voices, especially female voices, being irritating, or being interrupted, or being too shrill, or how to tone down your voice, or how to be a woman in a profession that’s dominated by men…. Do you have any strategic advice for those of us who are trying to convey our voices?

Without missing a beat, Ginsburg said simply: “You should speak in your own voice.”

Ginsburg recalls a headline in USA Today that called her “Rude Ruth” after she mistakenly interrupted justice Sandra Day O’Connor after an oral argument. When she apologized to O’Connor, the more senior justice wrote it off: “The guys do it to each other all the time; think nothing of it.” (In fact, a study of interruptions in the US Supreme Court published earlier this year found that the female justices are interrupted three times as often as the male justices.)

Ginsburg said that one op-ed writer tried to explain the incident by characterizing her as a “fast talking Jew from New York” and O’Connor as a “laid back girl of the golden west,” even though Ginsburg speaks far more slowly.

Ginsburg also said that when the two worked together, lawyers repeatedly referred to her as “justice O’Connor,” an indicator of sexism that Ginsburg has been vocal about. “They heard a woman’s voice. Although we don’t speak alike, we don’t look alike, I was called justice O’Connor,” she said last night.

Indeed, O’Connor is much taller than Ginsburg, has white hair, doesn’t wear glasses–none of which matters, actually; they’re just different people. That, it seemed, was Ginsburg’s point and her advice to women: Continue being yourself, and the world will see that women aren’t interchangeable.

In her 2016 book, My Own Words, she sums it up, referring to her time with O’Connor: “In the twelve and a half years we served together, Court watchers have seen that women speak in different voices, and hold different views, just as men do.”