Special: Nina Totenberg remembers Justice Ginsburg’s fight for gender equality

Sep. 25, 2020 AT 9:29 p.m. EDT

"She quite simply changed the way the world is for American women and I simply would not be here today in the job that I have if it had not been for her," Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg told Washington Week. Totenberg remembered her 48-year friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and discussed the Supreme Court justice's life and legacy.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.

A week ago the nation lost an icon on its highest court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the age of 87 after serving 27 years on the bench. For many Americans, Ginsburg was arguably the Court’s most prominent member, becoming a cultural phenomenon as the, quote, “Notorious RBG,” a great dissenter who stood up for liberal ideals on a Court with a conservative majority. Even before taking her seat on the Court, she was a trailblazing lawyer and champion of gender equality. Here are a couple moments from a remarkable life.

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: (From video.) Indeed, in my lifetime, I expect to see three, four, perhaps even more women on the high court bench, women not shaped from the same mold but of different complexions.

And when I’m sometimes asked, when will there be enough, and I say, when there are nine people. (Laughter.) People are shocked, but there have been nine men and nobody’s ever raised a question about that. (Applause.)

The number of women who have come forward as a result of the #MeToo movement has been astonishing, and my hope is not just that it is here to stay but that it is as effective for the woman who works as a maid in a hotel as it is for Hollywood stars.

MR. COSTA: Joining us to discuss Justice Ginsburg’s life and legacy is Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio and a longtime friend of Justice Ginsburg.

Nina, you have covered the Court for a long time and you know her so well. You knew her so well. Just tell us a little bit more about the justice’s legacy. We’ve heard a lot this week. But, perhaps, you have something to share, something that deserves a little more attention this week.

MS. TOTENBERG: Well, you know, as I’ve often said, she quite simply changed the way the world is for American women and I probably wouldn’t be here today in the job that I have if it hadn’t been for her, and the same would be – have been true for Judy Woodruff and others.

When we did a live broadcast today when she was lying in state, the first woman to lie in state in the Capitol and the first Jewish person to lie in state in the Capitol, I looked up to see who were the other NPR correspondents, and it was a bar of, you know, six female heads there and probably none of us would have been there like that in that kind of mass without Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

And it wasn’t just reporters or lawyers or doctors, the kind of thing that she said. When she was a professor at Columbia, early on in her tenured professorship there, she was approached because the university was cutting costs and so it had laid off none of the janitors and all of the maids. And so she went to the president of the university and the dean of the law school, and she said, this is not right. I’m going to – I will make a huge fuss. I’ll sue you over this. And so they changed it. (Laughter.)

MR. COSTA: Wow.

MS. TOTENBERG: It was a measure of her standupedness. She stood up for more people in the course of her life, both in the legal way as a lawyer, as an advocate, and as a judge and then a justice, but also in every – the numbers of people who have told me stories in the last few weeks about the times that she did something more than just a kindness for them. She stood up for them. She was a standup person, and that’s – she was the quintessential standup person in that tiny little, very discreet, very elegant, very dignified body. But you didn’t want to tangle with her.

MR. COSTA: And you interviewed her, the late justice, many times. Let’s watch a clip of your discussion from last year.

MS. TOTENBERG: (From video.) Do you have any regrets?

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I’ll tell you what Justice O’Connor once said to me. She said, suppose we had been – we had come of age at a time when women lawyers were welcome at the bar. You know what? Today, we would be retired partners from some large law firm. But because that route was not open to us, we had to find another way, and we both end up on the United States Supreme Court.

MR. COSTA: What did you make of that answer, Nina?

MS. TOTENBERG: What was really striking to me in retrospect is, that was a year ago July, and she began that answer by saying, you know, I have lived under a very bright star. It was the quintessentially optimistic way of looking at her world, which had not always been the easiest world. Her mother died when she was 17. She goes to college on a full scholarship. She meets Marty Ginsburg. She falls madly in love, and she has a very tough time in the beginning to make her mark in the profession. But she, ultimately, ends up on the Supreme Court.

But when I did that interview, I think she knew that her chances of surviving into her 90s were very, very few indeed. And so she was looking very much at the end of her life, and she viewed it as being under a very bright star.

MR. COSTA: And her legacy, as you noted, goes beyond what she did on the high court. Before coming to Washington, she was a lawyer for the ACLU. She took up many cases dealing with gender equality, many of which were heard on the Supreme Court. She represented both men and women, and she has long said she saw each case as a step on the road to the goal of complete equal rights.

She won five of the six cases she brought to the Supreme Court as a lawyer, and I want to remember something else you wrote this week, an essay for NPR that really stood out, about your five-decade-long friendship that began with a phone call. And tell us that story and about her as a lawyer back in those days.

MS. TOTENBERG: Well, I was a very young reporter in my early 20s assigned to cover the Court and I didn’t really know very much about what I was doing. And I was reading this brief that she had filed in what turned out to be the first sex discrimination case in which the Court would find that states could not automatically discriminate against women in their legislation.

And I didn’t really understand it so I called her, and I got an hour-long lecture. An hour-long lecture. I felt like a goose ready whose liver had been primed for foie gras by the time I walked out of that phone booth. Yes, we had phone booths in those days. And I was just amazed, and a few months later I met her at a conference that was extremely boring, and so we went shopping. (Laughter.)

MR. COSTA: And, finally, Nina, we’ve talked on the show about her as a cultural figure who inspired women and men on things beyond the law, including health and fitness. Here is her trainer, Bryant Johnson, paying his respects to her earlier today with pushups. And you’ve known her for so many years. You knew her so well. To see the reaction today to those pushups, to see her as a fitness icon, political icon, legal icon, how did she handle that cultural force – being a cultural force in her life later on?

MS. TOTENBERG: She would say, you know, I’m 83 years old. I’m 84 years old. I’m 87 years old, and people all want to have their picture taken with me. This happened to her in her 80s, and I really – I think that’s – the country sort of saw her, especially younger women, saw her as that kind of standup person, not afraid.

There was a moment, you know, when I asked her in an interview I did at Sundance when the movie “RBG” was going to premiere, and I had not seen it and she had not seen it, and I did an interview with her at the festival. And the #MeToo movement was exploding at that moment and I said, did you ever experience any sexual harassment, and she said, oh, yes, every person my age – every woman my age experienced sexual harassment.

And then she went on to describe this – what happened to her when she’s 17 years old. She’s at Cornell. She’s terrified that she’s not doing well enough in biology so she goes to the professor to ask for help and he gives her a practice test. And she goes then – then later on she goes to have the real test and it’s the same test. And she said, I knew what he wanted, and I said, so what did you do? Did you just never go back to see him again? She said, I went to his office and I said, how dare you? How dare you? I mean, she’s this 17-year-old first-year student and she’s taking on a professor. It’s a mark of her standupedness even as a teenager.

MR. COSTA: What a story. What a life. Nina, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

MS. TOTENBERG: Thank you.

MR. COSTA: And that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. And, really, thank you, Nina Totenberg, for her time and her reporting.

You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our website. While you’re there, sign up for our weekly newsletter. You’ll get an advanced look at our show each week and a note written by me. We’re trying to build up that newsletter so I hope you sign up.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.

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