Distributed May 26, 2002
News Service Contact: Kristen Cole
The 234th Commencement
Baccalaureate address by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the traditional baccalaureate address to seniors at Brown University on Sunday, May 26, 2002, in the Meeting House of the First Baptist Church in America. The text of her address follows here.
I am pleased to participate in this afternoon’s service, and to celebrate with you Brown University’s grand tradition. Brown was seventh, not first in time among our nation’s colleges, but it was the very first to welcome from the start students of all religious persuasions. May that embracing tradition forever remain Brown’s hallmark.
It is fitting in Baccalaureate remarks, your Chaplain told me, to offer advice hopefully useful for the chapters about to open in your lives – counsel others have given me that proved helpful in my professional and personal life.
At the top of my list, advice from my mother-in-law, given to me on my wedding day: In every good marriage, that sage woman said, it helps, sometimes, to be a little hard of hearing. I have followed that good counsel – with only occasional lapses – not only at home in a marriage soon to begin its forty-ninth year, but in places I have worked, even now, in relations to my colleagues at the Supreme Court. It is important to be a good listener if you are to work with others effectively, but it also pays, sometimes, not to hear – to tune out – when angry, unkind or thoughtless words are spoken.
My mother, who died the day before my high school graduation, had an idea of a similar kind. She repeated the thought constantly once I reached my teens. “Be a lady,” she said. And by that she did not mean be haughty or affect airs of self importance. To her, a “great lady” was someone who held fast to her convictions and self respect, a woman with the self control needed to avoid snapping back with a barb, brickbat, or broadside. A wise human, male or female, would understand that anger, resentment, envy, indulgence in recriminations or self pity do no good. Instead, those reactions are wasteful. They greatly drain away one’s time, they sap energy better devoted to productive endeavors.
Another piece of advice that has served me well came from a senior colleague when I was new in the judging business. Do the best job you can on each assignment, that adviser said, but when the job is done, the opinion completed and released, don’t worry over finished work. Don’t look back, go on to the next challenge and give it your all.
The main message I would like to convey concerns the large satisfaction you will gain if you do not strive simply for economic gain – if, instead, you become active in community life, in helping to make things a little better for people less fortunate than you. Ralph Waldo Emerson captured the thought when he considered the question: “What is success?” Emerson answered: “To know even one life has breathed easier because of you have lived. That is to have succeeded.”
Among my making-things-better inspirers is a brave woman named Helen Suzman. She was the only woman in South Africa’s parliament, in the not so ancient days when apartheid – racial segregation rigidly enforced by law – held sway in that country. In a book telling the story of her life, Helen Suzman recounted this scolding from another member of parliament:
The Honorable Member...must stop chattering. She is in the habit of chattering continually. If my wife chattered like that Honorable Member, I would know what to do with her. There is nothing that works on my nerves more than a woman who continually interrupts me. She is like water dripping on a tin roof.
That was in 1965. The Honorable Member was “chattering” about the need to end apartheid. The scolding came from the mouth of former President of South Africa, P.W. Botha, who later learned that voices for democracy can do more than grate on the nerves of oppressors.
With brave women like Helen Suzman in mind, may I tell you what the sometimes misunderstood word “feminism” means to me. As a French friend wrote in an e-mail received shortly after September 11, it is a suitable time to celebrate our societies’ recognition of the equal citizenship stature of men and women. Our Democracies, she said, have benefited greatly from an evolving appreciation of women’s worth. Our world, however is still retarded, as the Taliban rule reminded us, by regimes under which women are not treated even as human beings.
I had the good fortune to be alive and a lawyer in the late 1960s when, for the first time in the history of the United States, it became possible to urge before courts, successfully, that society would benefit enormously if women were regarded as persons equal in stature to men. In my college years, 1950-1954 (a generation before Brown and Pembroke merged), it was widely thought that women were not suited for many of life’s occupations – lawyering and bartending, banking and brokering, military service, foreign service, piloting planes, jury service, tenured positions at universities, even professional chefs, to take just a few of many examples that now seem ancient. So much has changed for the good since then. But sadly many people still regard feminism with suspicion, some are discomforted by the very word, some even call it the “F” word.
Properly understood, feminism is not a pejorative. It simply means freeing people, men as well as women, to be you and me, allowing each individual to pursue the God-given talents and qualities he or she has without artificial restraints. Susan B. Anthony, who tirelessly worked to achieve the vote for women in the United States, had a dream a century ago that is within our grasp today. She forecast a time when woman would be the peer of man. In education, in art, in science, in literature; in the home, in the church, the state; everywhere she will be acknowledged equal, though not identical with him.
Some seasons ago, my grand colleague Sandra Day O’Connor, first and for twelve years sole woman on the United States Supreme Court, made a surprise appearance one night in the D.C. Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Henry V. Playing the role that evening of Isabel, Queen of France, she spoke the famous line from the Treaty scene: “Haply a woman’s voice may do some good.” Indeed it may as women like Justice O’Connor herself, and Brown’s President, Ruth J. Simmons, have shown.
A few years ago, at the celebration of the reopening of the renovated Library of Congress Jefferson Building, a college student came up to my table and asked if I could help with an assignment. She had one question and hoped to compose her paper by soliciting responses from people attending the Library’s celebration. What, she asked, did I think was the largest problem as we embark on the twenty-first century. My mind raced past terrorist threats, privacy concerns in the electronic age, assisted suicide, deadly weapons, outer space. I thought of Helen Suzman’s “chattering,” and of the bravery and vision of Thurgood Marshall, for many years the NAACP’s leading counsel, later in life, Federal Court of Appeals Judge, Solicitor General, then Supreme Court Justice.
Justice Marshall praised the evolution, over two centuries of our nation’s sometimes turbulent history, of the constitutional concept, “We, the People.” Once confined to white, property-owning men, “We, the People,” in time, came to include once excluded, ignored, or undervalued people – humans once held in bondage, Native Americans, immigrants seeking freedom from fear and want, and women, at last made voters, nationwide, in 1920.
I thought ultimately of the U.S.A.’s motto and grand ambition: E Pluribus Unum, of many, one. The challenge is to make or keep our communities places where we can understand, accommodate, even celebrate, our differences, while pulling together for the common good. “Of many, one” is the main aspiration, I believe; it is my hope for our country and world. I urge all of you, in the Brown tradition, to play a part in achieving that high aspiration.
Everyday, because of the good job in which fortune, the President, and Senate have placed me, I receive request letters from people across the country. Some want my autograph (and thank you, not with an autopen), others want something I have worn (old shoes, for example). Still others seek counsel or encouragement. My current answer:
In the open society that is the American ideal, no doors should be closed to people willing to spend the h ours of effort needed to make dreams come true. So hold fast to your dreams, and work hard to make them a reality. And as you pursue your paths in life, leave tracks. Just as others have been way pavers for you, so you should aid those who will follow in your way. Do your part to help move society to the place you would like it to be for the health and well-being of generations following your own.
On Yom Kippur Eve, the start of the Day of Atonement, when Jews pray to be entered in the Book of Life for the coming year, these lines are recited in some synagogues:
Birth is a beginning
Members of the Class of 2002, my congratulations and good wishes to each of you and your families. May you thrive in your various pursuits, and may you gain awareness, knowing, and wisdom as you proceed along life’s way.