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Ruth Bader Ginsburg: ‘For so Long, Women were Silent’

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg extolled the #MeToo movement and revealed one of her own experiences with sexual harassment in deeply personal observations Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival.

“I think it’s about time,” the 84-year-old Ginsburg said of the new emphasis. “For so long, women were silent.”

“Every woman of my vintage knows what sexual harassment is, although we didn’t have a name for it,” she told the session’s moderator, Nina Totenberg, before detailing an incident when she was a student at Cornell in the 1950s and preparing for a chemistry test.

“My instructor said … ‘I’ll give you a practice exam,'” Ginsburg said. The next day she discovered that the practice exam was, in fact, the real test. “And I knew exactly what he wanted in return,” she said. “And that’s just one of many examples.”

Ginsburg said there was nothing a young woman could do about harassment at the time. The general attitude of the day, she said, was “get past it” and “boys will be boys.”

Yet Ginsburg, who became a nationally prominent women’s rights lawyer before her Supreme Court appointment 25 years ago, did not brush off that episode. “I went to [the instructor’s] office and said, ‘How dare you? How dare you?’ And that was the end of it.”

Well, almost the end of it. When Totenberg, a longtime friend of the justice and NPR legal affairs correspondent, remarked that Ginsburg likely did well on the chemistry test, Ginsburg answered dryly, “I deliberately made two mistakes.”

Sunday’s wide-ranging conversation in an informal café setting in Park City, Utah, preceded the Sundance premiere of a new documentary film about Ginsburg’s life, “RBG,” co-produced by CNN. Overall, the justice, who will turn 85 in March, appeared relaxed and in good humor. She was introduced by the founder of the film festival, actor Robert Redford, who saluted “her fight for justice and equality.”

Holding the microphone in both hands as she spoke, Ginsburg struck familiar themes about her pioneering work against sex discrimination, but also addressed the energized #MeToo movement. Asked if she feared a backlash, she said, “Let’s see where it goes. So far it’s been great. … When I see women appearing everyplace in numbers, I’m less worried than I might have been 20 years ago.”

Ginsburg plainly is reveling in her current life as a cultural icon, who is known to her younger admirers as ”the Notorious RBG.” She has seen the 2016 Saturday Night Live “Gins-burn” parody, featuring Kate McKinnon as the black-robed justice. “I liked the actress who portrayed me,” she declared, adding playfully, “And I would like to say, ‘Gins-burrrrn.'”

When Totenberg asked Ginsburg what her eight fellow justices think of her rock-star status, she quipped, “My colleagues are judicially silent about the Notorious RBG.”

Ginsburg is the most senior liberal on the ideologically polarized court. It was her 2013 dissenting opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, which curtailed a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, that inspired the RBG meme. A New York University law student adapted it from rapper Notorious B.I.G., and the meme has since extended beyond the online world to songs, T-shirts, mugs, and all sorts of Ginsburg memorabilia.

The new film captures that phenomenon as it chronicles Ginsburg’s life from childhood in Brooklyn, New York, to courtship with her husband, Martin, at Cornell, and from her groundbreaking women’s rights advocacy to her contemporary life on the bench.

Before donning the black robe, Ginsburg argued six cases before the Supreme Court on behalf of women, winning five of them and gaining enhanced protections against sex discrimination.

The film contains footage from home movies with Martin, who died in 2010, and scenes of Ginsburg in private moments in her home. It also captures her vaunted exercise routine of weights and core-strengthening planks. She told Sunday’s audience that she took up weight training in 1999 after surviving the first of two serious bouts with cancer.

When Totenberg queried about her health, Ginsburg said, “It’s very good.”

Ginsburg has said she does not intend to leave the bench anytime soon. She recently signaled that she wants to remain at least through 2020 by hiring law clerks for at least two more terms.

On Sunday, Ginsburg said, “As long as I can do the job full steam, I will be here.”