LEXINGTON, Va. — Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg received a warm welcome Wednesday at Virginia Military Institute, a campus she helped revolutionize 20 years ago with an order to admit women.
It was the first visit to VMI by Ginsburg, who in June 1996 wrote the majority opinion that the state-supported school must go co-ed or go private. It opted to admit women, with the first arriving in August 1997.
Although Virginia “serves the state’s sons, it makes no provision whatever for her daughters. That is not equal protection,” Ginsburg wrote in United States v. Virginia.
Ginsburg recalled that historic ruling at a forum marking the 20th year of co-education that was organized by VMI and neighboring Washington and Lee University School of Law. She read a poem that a critic sent to her soon after the decision, which painted a picture of female cadets fretting over their mascara and outfits.
“The women of VMI surely know they don’t resemble any of the women described here,” she said. “My response to this was ‘Wait and see. You will be proud of the women who become graduates of VMI.’ ”
Ginsburg appeared the morning after President Trump nominated Colorado federal appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Ginsburg did not mention the news. Nor did she weigh in on any of the legal controversies surrounding the Trump administration, which days earlier fired its acting attorney general for ordering Justice Department lawyers not to defend a temporary immigration ban on seven Muslim-majority countries and all refugees.
Ginsburg drew criticism last summer for saying she feared for the country and the Supreme Court if Trump were elected. She later apologized and promised to be “more circumspect,” acknowledging that judges should keep some opinions to themselves.
Her opinion in the VMI case was fair game, however, and hardly a subject of controversy on campus anymore, even though women still make up just 11 percent of the institute’s 1,700 students. Back in 1996, VMI’s then-superintendent, Josiah Bunting, called the ruling “a savage disappointment.”
On Wednesday, Ginsburg was greeted like a rock star by a crowd of about 3,800, albeit an 83-year-old rock star who remained seated throughout her interview with her two biographers and relied on a uniformed cadet to help her unwrap a gift presented to her from VMI.
The unwrapping had been complicated by Ginsburg’s trademark fishnet gloves. (She began wearing gloves in 1999 when she was undergoing chemotherapy for colon cancer, at the suggestion of then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, as a way to ward off germs. Since then, they’ve become a fashion statement, Ginsburg told The Washington Post a few years ago.)
For 45 minutes, Ginsburg answered questions from two biographers who are also Georgetown law professors, Mary Hartnett and Wendy Williams, and who kept the justice on largely biographical topics. They kicked things off by discussing how Ginsburg stays in shape with help from a personal trainer.
“There are push-ups and something called a plank,” Ginsburg said to laughter.
She does 20 push-ups, with one stretch in the middle, Hartnett said.
“And she does not do the so-called girl push-ups,” Hartnett said. “She does not use her knees.”
When the discussion turned to the VMI case, Ginsburg said O’Connor had paved the way years earlier with a decision that directed Mississippi University for Women to admit a man who wanted to study nursing.
“It was that precedent that paved the way for the VMI case some 15 years later,” she said. “Both cases made the same point, that government can’t prefer men or can’t prefer women for an opportunity, that all doors must be open to our sons and daughters.”
Ginsburg also tipped her hat to Scalia, the lone dissenter in the 7-to-1 VMI decision. (Justice Clarence Thomas recused himself because he had a son at VMI at the time.)
Scalia had been Ginsburg’s ideological opposite but also a dear friend and fellow opera fan. Ginsburg said Scalia came into her office, “threw down a sheaf of paper” and announced that it was the “penultimate draft” of his opinion in the case. He said that he was not quite ready to circulate it to the other justices but that he wanted to give her as much time as possible to respond to it in her opinion. She said the points he raised helped her strengthen her own argument.
“That’s the kind of colleague that he was,” she said. “He improved your product.”
“I miss him very much,” she added. “I say without him, the court is a paler place, because he brought such zest to our discussions.”
Among those who came to see Ginsburg was Lara Tyler Chambers, a member of the class of 2003, the third co-ed class to matriculate.
“She changed my life,” said Chambers, today a Richmond-area land developer. “She changed the life of all the women who attended here. And she’s changed the lives of women all over the world.”
Not that it was easy attending VMI as a woman in those days.
“It was like living in the boys’ locker room for four years,” she said. “It was like having 1,000 brothers. Some brothers give you wedgies. Some brothers are endearing. Some brothers don’t talk to you. Some brothers kick you from here to next week. It was a lot of roughhousing. But it was fun. It was never boring.”
Today, Chambers serves on the school’s board of visitors.