Leadership

Role models were so scarce for Ruth Bader Ginsburg she had to make one up

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Photo by Michael Kovac

When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a kid in the 1930s and '40s, there weren't a lot of strong women she could look up to.

Undeterred, she made it work.

"Growing up, there weren't too many, because women were hardly there," says Ginsburg in a conversation she had in a wide-ranging conversation she had at Stanford University this week about what it means to live a meaningful life.

"I had one real and one fictitious role model. The real one was Amelia Earhart. The fictitious one was Nancy Drew," says Ginsburg.

In 1956, when Ginsburg entered law school, less than three percent of lawyers in the U.S. were women. In her Harvard class of 500, only 9 students were female. And only one woman had ever served on a federal appellate court.

As she embarked on her law career, Ginsburg encountered inspiring women that became her real-life role models at last. One in particular was attorney Burnita Shelton Matthews, the first woman ever to serve on a U.S. district court.

When Ginsburg got to Washington D.C., Matthews was already over 90, but Ginsburg ate lunch with Matthews as often as she could.

"She was a woman from Mississippi, so she spoke with a soft Southern accent. She wore lace collar and cuffs, but she was a woman of real steel," says Ginsburg. "You think, What it was like for me? It was a piece of cake in comparison to what it was like for those women."

Having a robust professional network is critical, even if you aren't hoping to be a Supreme Court Justice. Thirty-something women tend to let networking slip to the bottom of the priority list, and that's part of the reason they fall behind the male peers in their careers, argues ex-Wall Street titan and Ellevest CEO Sallie Krawcheck.

See also: 4 secrets to living your best life from Ruth Bader Ginsburg