Ginsburg at VMI: "All Doors Must Be Open"

Feb 2, 2017

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visited Virginia Military Institute yesterday to talk about the case that transformed the school. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler filed these excerpts from the event.

The national political climate right now is anxious and uneasy, but Justice GInsburg didn’t come to VMI on Wednesday to talk about that. At least not directly. She mostly talked about the VMI case and her long legal career. But she did make a pointed reference to the Red Scare of the 1950s.

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG:  It was not a good time for the United States. Our country was  straying from our most basic values. Those are the right to think, speak and write as you believe and not as a Big Brother government tells you is the right way to think or believe.

The applause that followed suggested some parallels to the growing national mood today.

Among the packed auditorium were 200 female cadets who wouldn’t be at VMI were it not for Justice Ginsburg. She wrote the majority opinion in the case United States v. Virginia that found the school’s single sex admission policy to be unconstitutional.

JUSTICE GINSBURG: … That all doors must be open to our sons and daughters and they will choose to enter those doors if they have the will and the talent to do so.

She herself entered “the door,” many years ago, of Harvard Law School, where she was one of nine women in a class of 500 men.

JUSTICE GINSBURG: You felt you were constantly on display so if you were called in class you felt that if you failed, if you didn't perform well, you were failing not just yourself but for all women.

That experience hit home with Rachel Peterson, class of ‘01, the first co-ed class at VMI. She traveled from Pennsylvania to see Justice Ginsburg in person.

RACHEL PETERSON:  That’s exactly it, you are on display. Being in a class where there are 15, 20 cadets and you’re the only woman in the class. And even the professor would kind of put you on the spot, ‘Well, let’s get the female perspective,’ and then everybody would just zone in on you and then it was like, ‘Oh, I have to speak for the entire gender.’   When she said that, all these memories flooded back.