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Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to leave America to see how unfairly it treated women

A trip to Sweden in 1962 made the future Supreme Court justice see, she said, “what needed to change in the U.S.A.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg with daughter Jane in Lund, Sweden, in 1962. (Arbetet/Bilder i Syd) MANDATORY CREDIT - NO SALES OR DISTRIBUTION. (Arbetet/Bilder i Syd)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was 29 when she went to Sweden for a legal research project. And it was there, in 1962, that the future Supreme Court justice discovered a world that challenged every assumption she had about women in the workplace.

Not only did she see a female judge presiding over a trial, but the judge was seven months pregnant. In Swedish law school classrooms, at least 25 percent of the students she saw were women.

Ginsburg, who last week died at 87 and is being mourned this week at the Supreme Court and U.S. Capitol, wasn’t able to find a job after graduating near the top of her law school class. There had been just nine women in a law class of 500, and the dean asked each of them to justify taking the spot of a man.

“I guess I knew inequality existed [in the U.S.], but it was just part of the scenery. It was the way things were,” Ginsburg said in an interview with Lund University professor Kjell-Åke Modéer in 2014. “You had to cope with it.”

In Sweden, everything was different. Two-income families were completely unremarkable, though women still shouldered most of the responsibility for children and housework. Even that was being questioned.

A woman named Eva Moberg “wrote a column in a Stockholm paper asking why the woman should have two jobs and the man, only one,” Ginsburg recalled. “Why should the woman alone be the one to take the children for their medical checkups, buy them shoes, have dinner on the table at 7. He should do more than take out the garbage. Swedish women debated this idea. Some took pride in handling everything. I recall a medical doctor, glad that she had a profession, but thinking it all together right and proper that she take primary responsibility for her children. But others said: Why should I have two jobs when he has only one?”

All of this made a huge impression on Ginsburg.

“My eyes were opened up,” said the woman who would become instrumental in the legal battle against sex discrimination in the United States.

In this compilation of interviews, speeches and poignant moments in her life, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reflects on her journey and career. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I know that Ruth, in the early ‘60s, saw a lot in Sweden that was unthinkable in the U.S. at that time,” said Karin M. Bruzelius, whose father, Judge Anders Bruzelius, partnered with Ginsburg on the research project.

Ginsburg learned to speak Swedish before she traveled to Lund University with her daughter, Jane. The two stayed for a few months, while Ginsburg worked with Bruzelius to write “Civil Procedure in Sweden.”

Instead of hiring a babysitter, Ginsburg enrolled Jane in one of Sweden’s government-run day cares, and she was impressed with how well-run and nurturing they were.

“There were kindergartens or child-care centers where the kids were taken care of,” Karin Bruzelius said. “Ruth put her child in one of those during her stay in Lund, and she was very, very pleased with the facilities that were offered.”

‘What a distance we have traveled’: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on America’s promise for all

As she immersed herself in Swedish society, Ginsburg had an intimate view of how far ahead the Swedes were on gender equality.

The nation had its first female judge in 1927, its first female Supreme Court Justice in 1948.

Ginsburg was in Sweden when an American woman named Sherri Finkbine arrived to have an abortion she couldn’t get in Arizona.

“She had taken thalidomide and there was a grave risk that the fetus, if it survived, would be terribly deformed,” Ginsburg told Columbia Law School professor Gillian E. Metzger in a 2013 interview. “So she came to Sweden and there was publicity that she was there because she had no access to a legal abortion in her home state.”

Finkbine went on to become one of the first hosts of the children’s TV show “Romper Room.”

Ginsburg returned to Sweden at least twice more. In 1969, the faculty of the law school at Lund University conferred honorary doctorates upon both Ginsburg and Bruzelius.

Half a century later, in 2019, Ginsburg went back again for another honor: a jubilee doctorate.

“My thought processes were stimulated in Sweden,” the justice told Modéer, a longtime friend, in an interview in front of an audience following the university ceremony. “I saw what was wrong and what needed to change in the U.S.A.”

Ginsburg became notorious in America for the collars she wore with her judicial robes. But in Sweden, she was beloved for another adornment, the traditional ring that all Swedish doctoral graduates receive.

“She was a great friend of Lund,” Modéer said. “And she wore every day the Doktor ring.”

Read more Retropolis:

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg lost her mother to cancer as a teen. It made her work harder.

How Jewish history and the Holocaust fueled Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s quest for justice