Aryeh Neier: My memories of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death on September 18 left a vacancy on the Supreme Court, generating controversy over the appointment of a successor shortly before a presidential election [AP Photo/Jessica Hill]
Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death on September 18 left a vacancy on the Supreme Court, generating controversy over the appointment of a successor shortly before a presidential election [AP Photo/Jessica Hill]

Aryeh Neier is a renowned human rights activist who co-founded Human Rights Watch in 1978. As executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), he appointed Ginsberg as director of its Women’s Rights Project in 1972. The two enjoyed a long friendship.

He shared his memories of Ginsburg with Al Jazeera:

“I first met Ruth in 1971. I had become the executive director of the ACLU the previous year and had a wish list. Foremost on it was the establishment of a Women’s Rights Project.

“A feminist movement had been reborn in the late 1960s and I wanted the ACLU to be associated with it and to contribute its expertise in litigation to it. Although the era of the Warren Court – the years from 1953 to 1969, often considered the most liberal in US Supreme Court history, when civil rights and liberties were expanded – had just ended, and our prospects for extending constitutional rights to those previously denied such protections, such as women and people of colour, were drastically curtailed, I thought the re-emergence of a feminist movement might give us a chance to succeed in promoting women’s rights.

“Colleagues told me about a female lawyer who had done good work in cases such as Reed vs Reed, the 1971 case in which she successfully challenged the Idaho law that stated that males should be preferred to females in appointing administrators of estates. So I arranged to meet Ruth and to read briefs she had written. Reading her briefs was a pleasure. They were always closely argued and very well written. I soon offered her the post of director of the Women’s Rights Project.

“At around the same time, Ruth also accepted a professorship at Columbia University. The dean of the law school there, Mike Sovern, was a friend of mine, so we arranged to divide her salary. She spent almost all of her time at the ACLU offices and enlisted her Columbia students as research assistants in her litigation for the ACLU.

“We became friends, and I enjoyed going to lunch with her. We got to know each other’s spouses. Ruth was a reserved person who only spoke when she had something significant to say, but her husband, Marty, was a jovial extrovert. I began to describe him as the most supportive husband I ever met and I still think of him that way.

“One lunch I had with Ruth stands out in my memory. She had taken part in an American Bar Association visit to China at the very end of the Cultural Revolution. China had been almost entirely closed to the rest of the world for a decade. I kept her at lunch for a good part of the afternoon while she told me about what had happened to law, legal education and the judicial process during the Cultural Revolution. Many years later, when she was on the Supreme Court and I regularly visited China as president of the Open Society Foundation, I was pleased to be able to arrange for her to give a talk on American civil liberties at Beijing University.

“Everybody working on women’s legal rights in the 1970s knew that Ruth’s litigation was of central significance. It enhanced our ability to attract outstanding legal talent for our work because it raised the profile of the ACLU among those concerned with gender equality. In the 1960s there were still very few women on the ACLU board. Dorothy Kenyon, who served on the board for many years, was a notable exception. Together with Pauli Murray, a Black feminist, Kenyon encouraged the ACLU to take on more gender discrimination cases.

“Ruth’s presence helped build a strong feminist caucus on the board, and she believed that the ACLU could help enhance the credibility of the women’s rights cause. She said she chose the ACLU because of the integral connection between civil liberties and women’s rights. Partly because of her work, by 1974 the ACLU and its affiliates had participated in over 300 sex discrimination cases.

“In one respect it also helped with fund-raising. The Ford Foundation, a US-based philanthropic grant-making foundation, had never previously supported an ACLU project. McGeorge Bundy, president of the Ford Foundation from 1966 to 1979, was personally antagonistic to me because I had frequently spoken out on the rights of draft resisters during the Vietnam War. But junior staff at the foundation were eventually able to arrange a grant to the Women’s Rights Project because they wanted to be associated with Ruth’s litigation. That was a breakthrough, after which we got Ford funding for other projects.

“But Ford imposed a condition: the Women’s Rights Project could not support efforts to promote the right to abortion.

“This posed a dilemma. We were deeply involved in pursuing reproductive rights and intended to continue. But I was also reluctant to give up the funding. I let everyone know about Ford’s condition and established a separate Reproductive Freedom Project to operate alongside the Women’s Rights Project, with separate funding. John D Rockefeller III agreed to be the lead funder of the Reproductive Freedom Project, and I hired a young lawyer, Janet Benshoof (Benshoof died in 2017) to direct it.

“Ruth and Janet became close and Ruth would advise her, but would not directly take part in reproductive rights litigation. Ever since, the ACLU has had separate projects dealing with women’s rights and reproductive rights.

“In later years, I wondered whether this had worked out serendipitously. Ruth had as much on her plate as she could handle in challenging sex discrimination. If she had been directly engaged in our abortion rights litigation, it might have been held against her when, in 1980,  President Jimmy Carter nominated her to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit and in 1993 when President Bill Clinton nominated her to the US Supreme Court.

“I last saw Ruth at an event in Washington shortly before the pandemic shutdown. We were only able to speak briefly. In those few moments, she made clear to me how eager she was to survive until a new president could appoint her successor. Given the ravages of the multiple forms of cancer she endured, I think she survived as long as she did through sheer willpower.”


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