Justice Ginsburg’s Cautious Radicalism

“My advice is fight for the things that you care about,” Justice Ginsburg said. Fair enough — banal enough, really. Then she added, “But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

It was Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s vision, distilled: Have a radical aim, but proceed with caution.

.. Over the course of Justice Ginsburg’s career, she often had no choice but to be the first, but she never wanted to be the only. That meant, as a co-founder of the A.C.L.U. Women’s Rights Project, bringing cases that would persuade an all-male Supreme Court that women were equal under the law.

.. “Anger, resentment, envy and self-pity are wasteful reactions,” she has written. “They greatly drain one’s time. They sap energy better devoted to productive endeavors.”

.. “I think had she not had this persona as this very soft-spoken, neat, and tidy person, with a conventional life, she would have been considered a flaming radical,” her friend Cynthia Fuchs Epstein said. She used those relative privileges to work on behalf of others.

.. The first time Justice Ginsburg argued a case before the Supreme Court, in 1973, she was handed a bar admissions card that read, “Mrs. Ruth Ginsburg.” She had gone by Ms. ever since there was a Ms. designation to be used. Her law students, who had helped radicalize their teacher with their refusal to accept gender discrimination, promptly protested. But Professor Ginsburg shrugged it off. She was there to win the case of an Air Force lieutenant whose husband had been denied equal benefits, not to make a fuss over a name card.

.. “She insisted that we attempt to develop the law one step at a time,” a fellow A.C.L.U. lawyer, Kathleen Peratis, testified at Justice Ginsburg’s confirmation hearings in 1993. “ ‘Present the court with the next logical step,’ she urged us, and then the next and then the next. ‘Don’t ask them to go too far too fast, or you’ll lose what you might have won.’ She often said, ‘It’s not time for that case.’ We usually followed her advice, and when we didn’t, we invariably lost.”

.. She would rather win cases than go out dissenting in glory, which means, she said in a 2012 talk, “an opinion of the court very often reflects views that are not 100 percent what the opinion author would do, were she writing for herself.”