In mourning the passage of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I need to take a minute and recognize her role in advancing science.
I don’t mean her direct contributions. As far as I know, she didn’t perform a single experiment or co-author any peer-reviewed scientific research. And while she was instrumental in the some of the most important environmental and scientific rulings in the Supreme Court, her influence was squarely in the legal realm.
No, I want to thank her for helping to open all professions to more than half of the human population who, until as late as 1974, couldn’t have their own credit cards.
Ginsburg’s Harvard Law class of 1956 had 500 students, nine of whom were women. By her own account, she never had a woman teach any of her law courses.
My discipline, physics, is almost as notorious as 1956 law schools for the lack of women in the field. When I was an undergraduate student in 1994, the ratio was not as bad as in Ginsburg’s day but having more than two women in a single course of 40 or 50 students was notable. When I attended the University of Washington for graduate school, I recall being impressed by the large fraction of women in the graduate program.
It was nearly 20%.
By comparison, here at Weber State University in the Department of Physics, where 30% of the tenure and tenure-track faculty are women, we stand out. Even in 2020, nationally that number is more like 13%.
It further hits home because one of those faculty members is my best friend and life partner, Dr. Stacy Palen. Our move to Utah demonstrates the inertia of some of the things Ginsburg fought against.
When Dr. Palen came to Weber State in 2002, she was one of the first two women ever hired by the physics department. I had yet to finish graduate school. And since I was functionally unemployed, we purchased our first home based on Stacy’s salary and the credit history she was not allowed to have less than 30 years prior. Still, unbeknownst to us, the title company listed the owners of the property as “John Armstrong and WF.”
We only learned of this the following year when I received a phone call from our insurance company while working as a researcher in California. According to the agent, “some woman” from Utah was trying to make a claim against my homeowner’s insurance for roof damage done in a recent snowstorm. After we moved across town in 2010 and made sure we listed both our names on the new property, according to the Weber County tax records, even now, our home is still owned by “John Armstrong and WF Stacy Palen.”
Like I said, this stuff has inertia. That inertia is reflected in our institutions even after the laws are changed. Ginsburg was asked when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court, “When there are nine,” she replied. “There have been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”
I won’t hold my breath, given this country’s history and the fact we have only one Supreme Court. But with over 5,000 universities in the United States, many of them with physics departments, statistically at least some of them should be all women. And while I haven’t done a comprehensive search, I doubt any of them are.
Ginsburg worked hard to combat this inertia. And during her time, this woman, one of the nine in 1956, got to welcome Justice Kagan onto the Supreme Court, a woman who served as the dean of Ginsburg’s same law school.
I know my life, personally and professionally, is better because of Ginsburg’s efforts. I’ve seen what having a more gender-balanced physics department has done for our students. Not just the women, who finally see role models who share their life experiences, but for all of us. When women are represented in physics, the professional environment is supportive, safer and more productive.
Lastly, as I pay my respects for Justice Ginsburg, I think about the fond memories she had for her late husband. He was her stalwart supporter and enjoyed watching her rise to the very pinnacle of her legal profession. As a husband and partner of a wickedly smart and powerful woman, I hope someday she looks back on me as fondly as Ruth did on her beloved Marty.
Thank you, RBG, for your legacy of overcoming society’s inertia and making my life better.