Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Renaissance city

A “Floren-Teen” interview with the United States Supreme Court Justice

Francesca Cetta
November 6, 2018 - 14:00

Some years ago in Florence I had the honor of meeting a woman who hardly requires an introduction, a role model for the wider world: Madame Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Born in Brooklyn, New York, and a graduate of Columbia Law School, she was the second woman to be appointed as a United States Supreme Court Justice (by President Bill Clinton in 1993). Justice Ginsburg has fought insistently in the United States’ highest court to achieve gender equality, advocating for women’s rights and for a shift away from separating and societally dictating the spheres of men and women. I conducted an email interview with Justice Ginsburg in light of her recent participation in the L’eredità delle Donne Festival in Florence, to which she contributed a video message; her continued connection to our city after a 2016 visit to the NYU Florence campus with then-U.S. Ambassador to Italy John Phillips; her recent documentary RBG and forthcoming biopic On the Basis of Sex, to be distributed by Videa in Italy; and the mobilisation of US absentee voters in Florence as the mid-term elections take place.


Q and A: Madame Justice's message

Francesca Cetta with Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2015


Francesca Cetta: Madame Justice, you are well-known as a role model for women, for whom you have showed support and representation when nobody else would. When did you first understand the importance of this matter?
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The importance of striving for equal citizenship stature for women became apparent to me when I attended a university (Cornell) with a 4:1 ratio, men to women, and then a law school (Harvard) (ed. before transferring to Columbia) with an entering class of nine women and over 500 men. Girls and women are as bright and talented as are boys and men. What a waste it was not to encourage women to aspire and achieve and contribute equally with men to the health and wellbeing of society.


FC: How did representing Sharron Frontiero, a female lieutenant in the Air Force who did not qualify for some military benefits given to men, and taking a position as director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in the 1970s, contribute to making this one of your main points of focus?
RBG: Sharron Frontiero (now Cohen) was denied a housing allowance available to married male military officers, and her then husband, a college student, did not have access to health and dental care at the Air Force base. Wives of male military officers had that access. Unfair and irrational, Sharron thought and I agreed. Sharron’s case was typical. Men were regarded as the real breadwinners in families, women were considered pin money earners. The ACLU Women’s Rights Project was launched to stop that kind of law-enforced stereotyping. Once Sharron’s case was successful, it became clear that our legislatures and courts were ready to catch up to changes in the way people were living their lives. Women were working outside their homes in increasing numbers, and men were beginning to share in raising children, cooking, and keeping the household in order.

FC: Is there a particular episode or court case that you recall being the most arduous to face?
RBG: Death penalty cases are the most trying for me. That is because if I were Queen there would be no death penalty. But no one appointed me Queen, so I must do what I can to move the law in a humane direction, realizing I cannot do it alone. I am only one of nine.

FC: Given your past travel experiences to Florence, what were your first impressions, and what differences did you notice with regard to gender equality?
RBG: Florence is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and it contains my very favorite sculpture, Michelangelo’s David. I could gaze on him for hours. In late September, Florence had a celebration of Italian women (ed. L’eredità delle donne). I videotaped remarks that were presented at the celebration (ed. see an excerpt below).

FC: In what ways do you think that events like the one for which you made the videotape reflect more open-mindedness than the times in which you were director of the Women’s Rights Project?
RBG: More and more, society is appreciating women’s diversity and capacities. I took the occasion to speak about a woman from Turin I greatly admired, Rita Levi-Montalcini.

FC: During this year, the rate of femicides, rapes and violence as a whole in Italy has grown exponentially. What advice would you give to women {who have faced or are facing} such struggles and perhaps are not finding enough courage to report their aggressors?
RBG: One of the reasons for the exponential growth in reported numbers is that violence against women is no longer hidden. The #MeToo, Time’s Up movement in the United States is heartening. It’s no longer tolerable to say “boys will be boys” and shrug one’s shoulders at the abuse. My advice: Don’t try to go it alone or suffer in silence. Join together with others who want to stop putting women down. There’s strength in numbers.

FC: Your recently released documentary
RBG explores and guides the audience through your personal and working life. What message do you hope it transmits to the public?
RBG: There has never been a better time for women to succeed in doing whatever their God-given talent enables them to do. And if you don’t prevail at first try, keep trying, keep pushing forward. Also, as the film shows, I had fantastic support from my partner-in-life, my husband, who was always my biggest booster, the family cook, and caring parent to our daughter and son.

FC: Lastly, what advice would you give to readers?
RBG: When the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it is bound to swing back. As I have already said, fight for the things you care about, do so in the company of like-minded people, and do it in a calm and reasoned way, capable of persuading others to join hands with you to make your society a fairer, healthier, and happier place.

 

 

Excerpt from Ruth Bader Ginsburg's videotaped remarks at L’eredità delle Donne Festival

Florence, autumn 2018

Women whose art helped rebuild Florence

Paola Levi-Montalcini

In October 1943, Paola Levi-Montalcini and her twin sister, Rita, boarded a train in Turin without knowing exactly where they would get off. Decades later, her sister would be a Nobel
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“When Antonella Centra asked me to greet the attendees at the Women’s Heritage Festival (ed. L’eredità delle Donne), I didn’t hesitate, I just said yes. My only regret {was that the preparations} for the U.S. Supreme Court’s opening session {kept} me from being with you in beautiful Firenze. One of the women you celebrate{d}, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, last lineal descendant of her famous family, loved the city of her birth and bequeathed to it the Medici’s large art collection, stipulating that the donated treasures could never be removed to another place. Generations of visitors to the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace marvel at her gift, treasures Anna Maria Louisa de’ Medici ensured would always be housed here.

So many women have contributed to Italy’s cultural and scientific heritage. I would like to speak of one of them, a brilliant woman with whom I corresponded for years and then had the pleasure of meeting in Rome, in 2009, when she was 100 years old. Eyes dim, hearing impaired, but her mind still bright. Her name, Rita Levi-Montalcini, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986, together with an American colleague, Stanley Cohen. Levi-Montalcini grew up and attended medical school in Torino. She was saved from becoming a victim of the Holocaust by good people in Florence who protected her, her twin sister and mother when German troops entered Italy in World War II, and the Levi-Montalcini family literally had to flee for their lives. I was touched by Levi-Montalcini’s autobiography, English title, In Praise of Imperfection. In it, she wrote that she had tried to reconcile two aspirations the Irish poet William Butler Yeats thought irreconcilable: “perfection of the life and of the work.” She acknowledged that, as Yeats predicted, she had not achieved perfection of her life and of her work. Instead, she had experienced “imperfection of the life and of the work.” But then, she said, the activities she had carried out in imperfect ways had been, and ever remained for her, “a source of inexhaustible joy.” So she had come to believe that “imperfection, rather than perfection, in the execution of our assigned or elected tasks is more in keeping with human nature.” Good advice to pass through life with ease and comfort, don’t you agree?”

 

 

 

 

 

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